On sugarcoating

I realized this morning that part of the reason I haven’t written here in so long, the reason I balk at the thought of it, is that I got the most hate-filled letter I’ve ever received, back in July, in the form of a comment someone tried to post here. The writer claimed I was headed for hell, and likely my children too, because sons tend to fall into the sins of their fathers, you know, and because “God is not as merciful and forgetful as you pray He will be.”

As best I can tell, between the IP address and the embittered comments about how my last church should have kicked me out before I could leave (recall from time to time I’ve written here about the soul-destroying heresies of Jean Calvin, and about my previous church’s decision to excommunicate all the children of congregants), the person is a member, if not of my former church, then of the sect to which that church attaches itself.

Which is a shame, because nearly everyone there, including most of the leaders — as dreadfully wrong as I believe they are about Christian dogma — are good and loving people. Now the thought of walking through its doors ever again makes me cringe, in much the way one might be reluctant to dive into a pool once he’s found a thick ugly snake slithering about in it.

But I realized only this morning, as I thought about all the things my boys are doing, and what I’m learning from them and about myself, and how surely there are other parents who find themselves caught up in maelstroms who must struggle to be present and good in spite of these — that I scribble these things down but don’t put any of them here, because I know there is this ugly person lurking out there, judging not only me but my children. And there are a dozen more like him, who don’t just content themselves with hate mail to me, but write letters and emails to other people — publishers and pastors with whom I associate — in an effort to get them to cast me off.

Then there is my family, and people I’ve alienated, and employees, and people I’ve fired, and preachers I’ve angered, and people who don’t even know me but think they do because they know someone who knows something about me and so feel entitled to have an opinion about me, and all I can think is that years ago I should have named this bloody thing ruminationsofananonymousbozo.com instead of tonywoodlief.com.

But then half the writing gigs I’ve ever gotten wouldn’t have come my way, which I suppose would have been a bad thing, though half the time I wish I hadn’t written half of what I’ve written, not because I disbelieve it but because there’s nothing people hate more than someone who will not fit himself to their ideal of him.

The thing is, I don’t like writing cautiously. I had the honor of speaking at Ruminate Magazine‘s Faith and Arts Dinner a few weeks back, and I put it this way:

“I’ve not been accused of sugarcoating. I’ve been accused of exaggeration, and slandering dead theologians, and libeling living ones, of homophobia and homophilia, of socialism and libertinism and judaism, and I’ve been accused of heresy so many times that I’d start to worry if it wasn’t coming from a pack of heretics — but I’ve not been accused of sugarcoating.”

It’s hard, now, to feel like I have to sugarcoat, because someone may not like what he reads when he comes to the place with my name on it, where my words are, where nobody has to venture if he doesn’t think himself up to enduring what I have to say.

I know, I know, it’s a two-way street. If I’m going to be in the business of calling something a God-damned heresy, then I ought to gird myself for the other side of that transaction, which is that some Puritan somewhere is going to decide it’s me who’s God-damned. And so he’s going to say so, and if I think I’m man enough to write boldly, I ought to be man enough to read what someone thinks about what I’ve written. That’s only fair and right and par for the course.

But this person wrote about my children, about the hell to which they’re headed because of me, and suddenly I was right back in those old Baptist churches of my youth, listening to some fat, sweating bully rail at all of us for not being good enough, for heading to a place where we’ll burn and burn and burn unless we shape up, because if He is nothing else, God is really, really angry.

All of which just drains my soul right through the bottoms of my feet, which is sometimes why I think they call that place your sole, because that’s where it feels like it’s gone sometimes, doesn’t it? Down through your belly, screaming along the veins of your legs, into your feet and spilling out through the bottoms of them, into the dry dirt on which you stand.

But then I think — this is how these people rule each other, in too many churches. A few amateur scholars set up shop around the ramblings of minor, abstruse theologians, and a bevy of chattering hens surrounds them to cluck away at questioners, and so those who disagree, who feel their souls oppressed by the doctrines and the dynamics and the denuded aesthetics of the place, slink away in ones and twos and entire families, until the church isn’t what it once was.

We slink away because we are polite, and because we feel outgunned, and because we want peace, not a fight. Those are all good reasons to slink away, but I don’t suppose a writer is much of a writer — or a man much of a man — if he gets bullied away from his own website.

Which is my longwinded way of saying that I’m sorry I haven’t written more here, and I’ll try to do better, and if you happen to be one of those lurking vipers, I’d appreciate you attending to your own brats, and leaving mine to the grace of God, which is far greater and wider and grander, thank God, than you would have it be.


  1. Ellen

    Tony, your honesty about your doubts and and struggles is a huge part of why I read here. Makes me realize I’m not the only one…
    And I only identify more with you now that I have three boys, and it looks like there will be no more estrogen to balance out the crazy. =)

    I’ve had a viper in my woodpile before, too. If you’re not feeling strong enough to take the abuse at the moment, maybe you could turn off comments for awhile? There’s no shame in that… and it might get the viper to slither on to someplace else.

    Peace to you, brother. And God’s best blessings to your beautiful boys.

  2. Cheryl

    Glad you’re back! We appreciate your honesty and willingness to speak about struggles, doubts, and real life. May the Lord bless you and your family as you continue to speak the truth.

  3. Gray

    Stand up to the bullies! Put them in their place and forget their words.

    I am passionate about what I believe and what I think. I will go toe to toe with anyone on a subject I believe in. However, if in the midst of our contest of ideas, you bring up my children or my wife and wish ill upon them, well then you have a fight. I like the fight in your voice today. It is good-

    Perhaps I am too soft hearted, but often when I discuss things theological with others who disagree with me, I usually go away with either sadness in my heart for their confusion or a prayer to God to show me my error. It never occurs to me to comment about the fate of their soul, much less the soul of their children

    The whole thing reminds me of the seen in “A Few Good Men”, with Jack Nicholson raging “…you can’t handle the truth… you need me on that wall”. I believe what makes a bully is an individual who is too lazy to persuade so they move to intimidation.

    I appreciate the way that you ask big hard questions and seek to explain the truth revealed to you. That is a gift to be refined and cherished. I sense that you take it seriously as you should.

    The written word is more permanent than the spoken word, but whenever I teach, I open with the following prayer:

    “Lord, please show us the truth, speak through me. Protect those whom I am speaking to from any untruth that I may udder. Amen”

    So to all those reading these pages who disagree- make an argument, a thoughtful respectful refutation of the idea. Or take your bilge, your gunk and start your own blog!

  4. Micah

    I admit that I sometimes fall prey to the “I know him because I read his website” disease.

    But I know you enough to say I enjoy your writing and look forward to seeing you write more.

    If you’re ever in Wilmore, Kentucky, I’ll buy you a (root) beer. It’s Wesley country, there’s not a real beer for miles around.

  5. sjd

    Your books, articles and posts have deepened and strengthened my faith. I am sincerely grateful for your work. Thank you.

  6. Barbara

    I have missed your writing so much. Thank you for being brave enough to put up with all the sh*t and write about God’s true love and grace.

  7. kingfisher

    Tony, I’m sorry you’ve been so attacked that you feel like wincing, when you post. I suspect that most of us who are trying to show our hearts, have been swatted at somewhat, either online or in real time. Not all of us would have the strength to go on posting if things got as bad as you describe! (I’m not strong enough to keep from running away to hide!) How tragic that supposed-Christians have so much zeal for defending THEIR brand of faith, and so little compassion and “speaking the truth in love”.

    I pray that God will get ahold of all of us, smoothe out our rough edges, transform our hearts, so that it’s not “us” doing Christ, but Christ working in us for the glory of his kingdom!

    God bless you, and I hope you can find the strength to keep on blogging/writing about God, life, and human brokenness.

  8. Jonathan

    I pretty much never post anything in the comments sections of blogs I read, but it seems appropriate to add another vote of support for your writing, gratitude for your return, and shared anger at the kind of cowardly and small minded attack on you that you described.

    I’ve read your blog for a while and read your book (on a plane at the start of a long business trip away from my family, made me have to work desperately not to cry in public and concern my fellow airline inmates on my row). I appreciate your honesty and can relate to failing and the utter terror and sheer joy that comes with parenthood.

    Please keep writing. Turning off the comments as Ellen suggests would be fine with me if that makes it easier.

    Thank you for your sacrifice, humility, openness, honesty, and risk that you take for writing as you do.

  9. Post

    You’re all very kind, and I do appreciate the encouragement, though I feel obligated to clarify a misunderstanding I didn’t intend, but which seems to have arisen. Though I think that particular email was rooted in church-related resentment, the person went on about my publicly confessed sins, and claimed to know other things about me, and it was this the writer centered on, how I have fooled everyone, and am an unrepentant reprobate, and so my children are likely to be damned just like me, unless I turn from the path of perdition, etc.

    Maybe it’s a small difference, but I didn’t want anyone to think I was somehow being martyred for my religious convictions or anything. Not that it’s martyrdom. Just me being a sissy in the face of meanness.

  10. Susie

    Yeah — the hate mails stink. I won’t ever forget coming home from the funeral home when our infant daughter died and reading an
    e-mail saying that she died because of our sin. Those kind of things are hard to shake off. Anyhow, glad you’re back. I don’t always agree with everything you say, but this is still one of my favorite sites.

  11. Post

    Sweet God, Susie, to think someone would do such a thing…

    Sometimes I think hell will be filled with people arguing like lawyers about all the other people who really ought to be there, how there must be some mistake, how if only God thought clearly enough He would see the long list of people who ought to be down here instead…

  12. Emily

    I’m thankful for this blog, because even when (especially when) I don’t agree with everything you write, your words make me think. And pray. And come back for more. You have an inspiring gift, and I appreciate you sharing it with us whenever you feel you can do so.

  13. Aaron

    Hi Tony, I read “Somewhere More Holy” last fall and really enjoyed it. I passed it along to my sister (Mom of two boys and a girl)and she also appreciated it. I recently finished a book of my own, kind of a memoir of my last ten years. I was wondering if I could send you a copy. My email is aawpluim@hotmail.com. If you could give me an address I could send the book to that would allow you to get it, I’d love to share a copy with you. Thanks.

  14. Scott

    Tony, love your idea of what hell might be like, but there’s one problem: those folks would probably ENJOY doing that for all eternity, so it wouldn’t be much of a punishment!

    Susie, my heart goes out to you. We got the same trash from so-called believers when my mom got seriously and chronically ill when I was eleven. A ‘friend’ told her that she needed to repent of her sin, then she’d get better. Mom actually had a vision that made it clear this was NOT a message from God. It’s more than 30 years later, Mom is still alive and kickin’, but still unwell, and as close to her loving Savior as ever. Oh, she’d be the first to admit that she constantly has sins to repent of, too!

    The Father of Lies has a much greater foothold in the hearts of some believers than they realize.

  15. Lorne Wilson

    So glad you are back. You inspire me and stretch my brain. For that I am grateful.

    It is funny how many people with planks sticking out of their eye’s are more than happy to tell you about the speck in yours.

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  17. Ken Larson

    I understand now why you had to leave your previous church. Sometimes, though, I still see your wife and kids in attendance. It seems to me that you and her need to come to some kind of an agreement as to where you will attend. This occasional ‘split’ cannot be helping your marriage any. I miss seeing you there! I have occasional doubts about 1 or 2 points of Calvinism, but I still find it mostly Biblical. God Bless you and your family, dear friend! He is gracious and full of mercy. He loves us more than we know!

  18. Howard

    Tony, glad you’re back. I identify so well with your writings that it’s like looking in a mirror (which I desperately need) when I read them.

    When Jesus’ disciples asked, “Do you want us to call fire down from heaven to destroy them?”, I believe they meant well, but were deceived. Jesus, however, rightly identified the spirit by which such things are said.

    I don’t know if you can give your accuser the benefit of the doubt (about meaning well), but you can consider the source of the comments.

    Don’t allow (even well meaning) hateful people to intimidate you, nor tempt you to return evil for evil. And keep writing!

    Finally, if God is not as merciful and forgetful (forgiving?) as we pray He is, then we are all doomed.

    God bless you brother.

  19. Spud

    It hurts my heart to see people focus on religion rather than relationship. Jesus help us. Your actions (or lack of) would only affect your relationship with the Lord, and not the salvation of anyone else, including your sons. That’s something they will work out with fear and trembling.

    Your post reminds me of the junk that happened about ten years ago, when the “Christian blogosphere” cloud was trying to form. There was a big debate about paedobaptism (I think that’s the term) and someone telling me that my child would be condemned to hell if he died because he had not yet been baptized. I believe baptism is a choice of the believer, not something forced on a baby or whomever, and not a prerequisite for salvation. After that stuff I drifted away from that particular cloud.

    Please keep posting and let the negativity from a few roll off you like water on a duck’s back. Have fun with it.

  20. Adam DeVille

    You need to pray the psalms of imprecation against those who write you hate mail, etc. I know one very holy monk who did this and those who hated him wound up being inexplicably defenestrated, decapitated in freak accidents, or otherwise disposed of!

  21. Jeanette

    I will join the chorus — missed your thoughtful, oddly hope-giving posts, and inspired that you’ll go where so many others fear to go.

    What sniveling creatures we are, thinking we have any power to pronounce others or their children damned to hell. Can’t beat the human species for finding ever new ways to demonstrate our depravity.

  22. Beth B.

    I’ve missed your writing here, Tony. I’ve benefited a lot from what you’ve written. I hate that feeling when you open up a web place that you thought was safe only to find an attack. That happened to me today on a discussion thread where I had opened my heart, and it hurts. I don’t know why people feel so free to say such awful things online. I suspect they wouldn’t have the guts to say it to you in person. There are plenty of us, though, who appreciate your perspective and want you to keep writing. It would be worth it to me if we couldn’t comment at all if that means you can write freely from your heart.

  23. caveat bettor

    Not a spirit of timidity but of power, love and discipline.

    I grew up in a church that sounds a bit like one of your old ones. Several of my youth group chose Bob Jones U, if that is any indication.

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  25. Jonathan

    I just finished reading your book “Somewhere Holy”. I am very grateful for it. It reminded me of how much I have and how much I need to cherish my family. It made me want to be a better father than I am. It also made me laugh out loud on numerous occasions as you described events that happen all the time at my house as well where we too are seeking to raise four boys (ages 1 to 7 years). The inability to get everyone to the table while the food is still cooked, the way they start eating before prayers even though we have been saying grace since the day they were born, the wrestling matches on the living room floor,…. You made my world and my thoughts seem normal for at least they are shared by one other family! So thank you.

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