I think my mind has opened the most thanks to closed-minded people, some of the most memorable of whom I met in college at UC Santa Barbara.
Topping the list is the woman who offered to perform an exorcism on me.
It was my only chance to avoid burning in hell, she told me after reading a column I penned as God in the campus newspaper.
I was co-editor of the opinion pages at the time, a privileged position to stir up controversy that i used to full effect.
My latest creation was The Lord’s Corner, a weekly advice column in which God provided divine guidance for wayward students. I wrote it first-person (or first deity?) under God’s byline, with a note at the end that it was transcribed by “His holy ghostwriter, William Yelles.”
The inspiration came from being accosted one too many times by aggressive Jews for Jesus missionaries outside the student center. They were not the only vocal campus activists who regularly got in my face. But this bunch in particular got under my skin each time they handed me a brochure that made an arrogantly confident Scriptural case for why my Jewish soul needed saving.
With my own one-on-one encounter with God fresh in my mind, I decided that if they are qualified to speak for Him, then so am I. So in His debut column, God reminded Jews for Jesus and His entire flock that He loves everybody the same, no matter what.
I received a ton of positive word-of-mouth feedback, what “going viral” meant in those days. The satirical tone seemed clear to everyone except for a handful of humorless fundamentalists, including the one who called me at the newspaper office seriously concerned that a satanic demon was inside me. It was the only logical explanation as to why I would write such a column.
She insisted that I come alone to meet her and a “priest” whose name she would not reveal for a ritual ceremony she could not explain a mile off a backcountry road in the woods late at night. I politely declined.
An earlier run at rescuing Members of the Tribe from eternal damnation was less extreme but just as spiritually and intellectually naive.
Early in my freshman year, I became friends with two guys in my dorm, Chris and Ryan, roommates who seemed normal except for favoring Newsboys and Jars of Clay over Nirvana and Dr. Dre. They also didn’t drink, yet somehow were perpetually happy.
While genuinely friendly, they routinely peppered me with questions about Jewish religious practice, like anthropologists conducting a field study.
As their inquiry grew esoteric, I suggested an alternative source. The campus representative of Chabad, a Hasidic Orthodox sect with a come-as-you-are attitude hosted a weekly “Ask the Rabbi” Q&A, where they would get better answers and free pizza.
A few days later I asked them for their thoughts. Yes, the rabbi answered everything to their satisfaction, Ryan said. Except for this one thing.
“No matter how many times we tried, he would not accept Jesus Christ into his heart as his Lord and Savior.”
“He is an Orthodox rabbi…” I reminded.
“Yes,” said Chris. “But who would think he’d be so set in his ways?”
In fairness, 20 years later, Chris and Ryan likely would have very different expectations today. There is no shortage of folks whose younger selves held all kinds of misguided beliefs.
I considered myself clever, 20 years ago, when I believed that I, or anyone else, could speak for God. At the time I thought why not, since nobody knows anything about what God would say. Direct communication with the Divine did not seem possible. God was something “out there.”
Today I know God as the universal presence that is everywhere and inside of everyone. Nobody needs to speak for God. Instead, God needs to speak through us. When we laugh. When we love. When we celebrate. When we encourage. When we give thanks and give of ourselves including our unique purpose, the gift God has given each of us.
This is our choice: We can try to contain an immature understanding of a distant God in the corners of our minds, or we embrace the full awareness of the vibrant God who here and now can flow freely from the center of our hearts.
Photo: UCSB campus, 2013