(RNS) — In an odd bit of 21st century archaeology, we unearth archives of the deceased on our phones. For a year after my father died, I kept two voicemails from him, neither of which I could bring myself to play.
So it was that when Darrin Patrick died on May 7, just two weeks after I’d recorded a podcast conversation with him, I scrolled through a string of text messages between us that stretched back over a decade.
Among our sporadic communication was this message, dated Sept. 7, 2014: “Brother, i would love to talk. I need to apologize for some stuff Darrin Patrick.”
Darrin and I had crossed paths over the years, particularly in the early aughts, when we were both part of a group of young Gen X pastors who were trying to fix evangelical Christianity. But our paths diverged. The faction of which he was a part took a more conservative tack, while my posse followed a more progressive one and, sadly, we became rivals.
On our call in 2014 he said he was sorry that we’d let theological disagreements get in the way of friendship, and I said the same. We began to make plans to work together, even to co-host conferences. But mostly I marveled that he would reach out to me and ask for reconciliation.
Just four months later, however, my life was upended. Everything I’d worked on over two decades evaporated over a couple weeks based on some allegations posted on the internet. And I received another text from Darrin: “Bro, I just read your statement. This is so heartbreaking. I can’t imagine you having to carry all of this for many years. Please let me know if I can help in anyway.”
When a lot of Christian leaders were publicly distancing themselves from me, Darrin pulled closer, offered grace, showed love.
A year after that, I had a chance to return the favor. Darrin had his own “implosion,” as he called it, fired from the St. Louis church he’d founded, for inappropriate conduct. I texted him when the news hit, trying to offer some words of support. He responded by apologizing for the hurt his sin was causing. I reminded him that we all sin.
We each spent the next half-decade rebuilding our lives. Darrin went through a lengthy and painful restoration process and returned to ministry as a teaching pastor at Seacoast Church in South Carolina. I ultimately left church ministry and began to consider ways that I could find God outside the walls of the church.
When Darrin saw that I’d started a podcast about outdoors spirituality, he pinged me on social media and offered to come on the show. We booked a date and then canceled it because of COVID. I figured I’d interview Darrin down the road, once I could get back into the studio.
And then he texted me again. “Bro, we going to do this podcast or not? … Really interested in telling my story about how the woods speak to me and my story of abuse from my dad which almost makes me a pantheist.”
Thank God he sent that text, because we did have a conversation a couple of weeks later. Two weeks after that, Darrin died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound (whether intentional or accidental has not been disclosed).
Darrin and I covered a lot of ground in our chat, including what he called the “three-legged stool” of our friendship: theology, baseball and hunting. We discussed whether he was actually a pantheist (no), how much it hurt when the Twins beat the Cardinals in the 1987 World Series (a lot) and how important were his trips to the woods during his hardest days (“the reverence, the stillness, the darkness”).
I’ve listened to the audio several times, and this week I published it as a podcast episode (with the blessing of Seacoast Church, serving as a proxy for Darrin’s family). What strikes me is how tired he seemed, how his travails had wrung so much life from him.
I asked him why he returned to ministry rather than find another job, one in which his past travails wouldn’t haunt him. “I tried,” he confessed. “But Tony, I just couldn’t. … ” He went on to say that he counseled young pastors, “If you can do anything else, do it.”
Darrin was a pastor, through and through. So he subjected himself to a restoration process that was, by all accounts, brutal and exhausting. Yet through it all, he remained honest, and vulnerable.
When I asked him about the place of hunting in his life, he said: “It was absolutely critical to my healing. There’s something about the woods for me. … It does something to my soul.” He talked poignantly about sitting in the silence and darkness of a tree stand, waiting for a deer, listening to the world wake up.
I know the feeling. I fled to the woods when my life fell apart, for as chaotic and harsh as the wilderness is, these days I find it more hospitable than the church.
But the most intense moment came during a discussion of what we’d each lost — celebrity and friends — and how much smaller our social circles had become. “You know, I really want to spend the most time with the people that are going to be at my funeral,” Darrin told me. “And specifically those who will be carrying my casket.”
And now his family prepares to carry his casket.
I will miss Darrin — his humility and his brokenness and his empathy. I’ll miss having another person on this planet who knows what it’s like to be turned out of the church and try to crawl back in, who knows the sting of public humiliation in the age of internet shaming, who knows what it’s like to build something you’re proud of, only to lose it.
I pray for his wife, Amie, and their kids. And I pray that our podcast conversation will be part of his lasting legacy, a testament to his faith, his love of his family, of God and of the outdoors.
(Tony Jones is the author of “Did God Kill Jesus?” and the host of the “Reverend Hunter” podcast, found on ReverendHunter.com. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)