A lot of people think you write a memoir when you’re ready to pack it in—give it up—ride off into the sunset—or lay down and die.
None of those things apply to me.
In fact, not only am I not packing it in—I’m actually unpacking and setting up shop for a whole new endeavor—as I stand at the threshold of 60!
You probably know, two years ago I launched The Dietrich Bonhoeffer Institute, named for my posthumous hero and mentor, the brave, young, brilliant and deeply spiritual Lutheran pastor who dared defy Hitler and the murderous Nazi regime.
So, since I’m not retiring and I’m not terminally ill—and I’m just getting started in a new undertaking, why would I write a memoir now?
Well, according to Miriam Webster, a memoir is “a narrative composed from personal experience.” It really is what it sounds like: a collection of memories that, when tied together, form a coherent story and, in my world, teach lessons about ourselves, our situations, and, of course, about God. A few years ago, when I took a little time to reflect on my more than 40-year spiritual odyssey—including the highs and lows, the mountain tops and valleys, the sunny and rainy days—I realized my story spoke to the times we are living in.
It wasn’t easy to tell that story, though. When I sat down to write, my natural instinct—call it my survival or self-protective instinct—led me to draft an account of all the high points. I spent more than a year working on a manuscript, only to be told by the publisher they wouldn’t publish it.
“Why not?” I asked in exasperation.
“Because it’s not honest,” said my editor.
“Not honest?” I protested. “What do you mean by that?”
“Rob,” he said respectfully. “You were married at 18, you spent time in jail, you brandished a dead fetus in front of television cameras – and that’s just the start of your 40-year journey! It couldn’t have been all rosy. I dare you to be completely honest with your readers. They will only trust you when you tell them the truth.”
He also urged me to write in a language that the average person could understand and identify with—and to assiduously avoid the peculiar idiom spoken only by a certain group of Christians—what I call “evangelese!” In other words, I was being admonished to share my message with everybody, not just evangelical Christians.
It was a sobering challenge. I prayerfully sat with his admonition, then, hesitantly, started pecking out a few daring sentences—not just telling the varnished versions of stories—but telling the stories behind the stories. It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. In fact, it became downright painful.
Forty years of anything will include lots of highs and lows, good and bad, nice and nasty, and sad and happy, but my forty years carries even more with it: considerable regret—sometimes deep, personal, and irreparable.
For the better part of thirty years I was an activist. Activists take risks—of being pilloried as cranks, engendering anger from opponents, arrests and prosecution for civil disobedience, even prison, bankruptcy, and, yes, death. Of course, these penalties often make an activist a hero, and the more dangerous things I did, the more accolades I received for my courage. Those accolades didn’t come from everyone, though. The people most important to me never asked to be subjected to the punishments, humiliation, and fear that I gladly accepted. In the end, my often-reckless disregard for my wife, Cheryl, and my kids, Anna and Matthew, left a trail of suffering that would only come to light years after the injury was dealt to them.
There’s more that forms this underbelly to the otherwise glamorous story of my life as a globe-trotting evangelist, tireless pro-life activist, and Capitol Hill conservative Christian advocate. There were my own quiet doubts about my moral certitude on so many things, my dismissal of the considered views of others, and the real-life pain that some of my words and actions caused to people who became the focus of my righteous indignation.
For me, it would take many conversations with a godly counselor, deep interactions with Cheryl and the kids, and a pilgrimage through Europe in the shadow of Bonhoeffer’s Christ-like passion and death, for me to face these darker places in my life and begin the daunting process of making amends and working toward reconciliation—with God, with my loved ones, and with my opponents.
The process was at times supremely uncomfortable, but, in the end, it was enormously rewarding. Writing Costly Grace: An Evangelical Minister’s Rediscovery of Faith, Hope and Love was a kind of confession, and, as the old axiom has it, “Confession is good for the soul.” It proved good for a whole lot of other things as well.
What I say in Costly Grace, about myself, about our big Christian family, about the movement I came to represent on a national scale, won’t be easy to read for many who have known me over the years. It’s raw, candid, and, as one colleague described it, “searingly honest.” Such honesty isn’t always popular. I’m ready for criticism from both the right and left, conservatives and progressives, even from my own family and closest friends, but, to employ another hackneyed phrase, “Honesty is the best policy.”
Costly Grace is not the book I intended to write; it’s the book I needed to write. I hope it does for my readers what it did for me: help us all to face our true selves and the reality in which we live—with or without Christian faith; to face the ways in which we have hurt our loved ones and to make amends for those injuries; and to face the future honestly and with confidence that, as the Bible says, “love covers a multitude of sin.”
My hope—my prayer—my only intention in writing this memoir was so my readers could make the same discovery—or rediscovery—I’ve made—of faith, hope, and love. And having discovered these gifts from God, I pray we can all share them with a deeply divided, spiritually alienated, very needy world, so that we can be the salt and the light Jesus said His disciples should be!