I had just read Love Wins. I wasn’t sure I believed it, so I did a lot of research. Like a lot of research. I spent a ton of time on Tentmaker.org. I had at least ten other bookmarks about Christian Universalism. I read “Justice” by George MacDonald, and he blew my mind.
I was taking a class called Philosophy of Religion, and my (Christian) professor wasn’t remotely similar to the joke of a philosophy professor from God’s Not Dead. He challenged us. We read arguments against God’s existence. Very good arguments.
I took Bible classes and somehow ended up with the notion that the Genesis account was orienting narrative, not history and science, and not intended to be read as such. I decided that evolution was okay.
I took a course on sociology. I learned about other cultures.
I discovered a post by Derek Flood in which he argued that Penal Substitution – the idea that Jesus died to satisfy God’s wrath against humankind – was a horrible way to read the Bible.
Christianity was slowly become a religion that I believed (religion/relationship, whatever) because it was beautiful, not because I didn’t have any other options. But I still believed in inerrancy.
Like I said, it was the perfect storm.
~ ~ ~
One night I was in the computer lab at school working on some video project or another while chatting with a well-intentioned person who was trying to reel me back into orthodoxy on penal substitution. The usual questions, the usual arguments. I had all the answers. And then she said this, in the middle of a huge discussion. It lit up like a light in a kitchen full of cockroaches.
It is obvious that in the Old Testament, God did at different times punish whole nations for the sin of a few. Even children. [Emphasis mine.]
I was stunned.
She was right and I knew it. I spent an hour every night of my childhood listening to my dad read the Bible. God most definitely commanded Israel to kill everyone, even children.
There’s a mythology surrounding dads and daughters that goes something like this:
All boys are evil. They only want one thing. For this reason, all fathers must own shotguns (or firearms of some kind, but preferably shotguns) to protect their daughters against those evil boys who only want to get into their pants.
In the mythos, the father is usually sitting on the front porch cleaning his firearm when the boy arrives to pick up the girl. There is a one-sided negotiation over how late the two will stay out: the dad explains when he will have her back by, and then he changes his mind and decides that they should return sooner.
What’s most troubling about this mythos is that it has been largely adopted by Christian men; evangelical men in particular. This is troubling on a number of levels.
The first (and most obvious) level is the implication of violence. I’ve been spoken to by a man with a shotgun before, and it was a rather scarring experience. He never pointed it at me, but it was unpleasant nonetheless. It disturbs me that this is one of the many times during which evangelicals love the idea of guns.
There are a disturbing number of parallels between evangelical men and Jayne Cobb from the TV show Firefly and film Serenity who says, “I’ll kill a man in a fair fight… or if I think he’s gonna start a fair fight. Or if he bothers me. Or if there’s a woman. Or if I’m gettin’ paid – mostly only when I’m gettin’ paid!” Evangelicals (some of them) tend to love their guns as much as Jayne. And he named his.
In addition, it’s a double standard. Girls’ virginity is sacred, but boys’ virginity is functionally irrelevant. No father or mother ever meets a female date with a shotgun warning the girl not to take advantage of their son. Certainly it could be argued that boys are more likely to take advantage of girls, or that boys are stronger, but you’ve got to understand that not all boys are like that. This kind of stupid assumption is a little like if you saw a young black man walking down the street with skittles and wearing a hoodie, decided he was up to no good, and then shot him. I’m not sure why that sounds familiar…
I know the lines in the myth because they’ve been recited to me.
Mark Driscoll once explained in a sermon that every dad has a duty to his daughter – to let her know that all boys are evil. He said that there were two things that every Christian father needed to let a young man coming to call on his daughter know: “We love Jesus, and we know how to hide a body.”
I’m sorry… WHAT?! In what kind of psychotic Christianity do Christian dads need to know how to hide bodies?
That line about boys only wanting one thing? My dad said it all the time. He said he knew that it was true because he was a young man once himself. If you’re not a sex-fueled robot, It’s enough to make you bang your head against a table or a wall, whichever is closer. (Read the article in the link. Micah J. Murray is a beautiful man.)
I admit that my father didn’t own a shotgun, but we had very candid conversations about meeting young men at the door with the sledgehammer we used to cut firewood. I was quite disappointed the first time a young man (from a different faith!) called to talk to my sister: my dad just handed her the phone!
I’m pretty confident that my former girlfriend’s dad had a shotgun, or a firearm of some kind. He once accused me of being “like a dog in heat” – in spite of the fact that I had never touched his daughter. Wait. Our hands might’ve touched once or twice when I handed her something. His dogs must’ve behaved very differently from any I’ve ever seen when they were in heat, that’s all I can say.
Being forced to interact with that man revealed to me the great truth that in large part, we behave the way we believe people expect us to behave. I don’t mean the way that we do what people tell us they expect from us; we do what they actually expect us to do. For example: He said that he expected me to only talk to her for fifteen minutes per night. What he actually expected was that I would be a disobedient shmuck who talked more often and snuck around. I lived up to his expectations. And where the hell did we get this stupid idea that you set boundaries on the boy? Keep your own kids under control, jerk. (Sorry, a bit of excess rage is still under there apparently.)
Then I met the man who was to become my father-in-law. Skittish doesn’t begin to describe my condition. Gracious doesn’t begin to describe his. He never hinted that my motives might be anything less than absolutely pure. He never warned my bride-to-be that boys only wanted one thing. In short, he respected me. He lived like someone with no reason to believe that I would be anything less than honorable and completely trustworthy. And I lived up to his expectations.
I don’t know if he owns a shotgun, or a firearm of any kind. His younger brother did, and I had been warned that he was very protective of his neices, but when I finally got around to going to visit, I never even got to see the long-dreaded shotgun. He showed me how to put kabobs on a grill, and while he was teaching me, he decided that he liked me. That was it.
I should mention that I was a bit disappointed in the first meeting with her parents when I asked permission to date the woman who is now my wife. I half-expected a fierce grilling. A long meeting with threats of violence if I ever hurt her. But I never got them – and a good thing too, because I was still ready to make a run for it in the event that her family turned out to be psycho. The closest I got to a grilling? Her parents took us to Red Robin to talk.
Fear is a horrible motivator, kids. Even if you can get the person you’re threatening to do what you want, you can never make them like you.
And maybe that’s where it comes from. Some people see God as this big man in the sky who threatens people with hell to get them to do the right thing and, as a result, treat others in the same way. Somehow, I don’t think my wife’s dad sees God that way. And for that, I am forever grateful.
Anne Lamott once said, “You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.”
Earlier this year, while I was going through my things and trying to decide what to keep and what to throw away, I came upon a note scrawled in my handwriting on a piece of paper. It said,
“I give up the right to ever marry _________.” The blank was filled in, of course.
The note took me back to a back road on the way to Brownsville, Pennsylvania where I had come to the horrifying realization that I liked my sort-of girlfriend more than I liked God. I would’ve said “love” back then, but love is a pretty strong word, and I think it much better describes how I feel about Kristen than how I felt then. But the feeling then was pretty intense, and it freaked me out.
I guess I should start at the beginning.
I grew up in a conservative family and accepted Jesus into my heart when I was seven. I think I was at least fourteen before I did it again… And again and again and again. It wasn’t that hell scared me; I just wanted to be with God if I died before I woke. Eventually I realized that all of this praying was me relying on my works (prayers) instead of on God’s grace, so I asked God to save me one more time and let it go.
Then (skipping a lot of things) I had my rebellion and moved out and went off to make my own decisions and be sinful and stuff. I still went to church every Sunday, but I put some serious thought into why I went and what I wore. I didn’t know that my “rebellion” was like dumping lighter fluid onto a smoldering fire that had never gotten very big. Sure, I’d tried to get people to accept Jesus, but asking questions was about to lead all the seeds my dad and our churches had planted to burst into flames. But let me tell you.
So there was this girl at the super-conservative church my parents went to at the time. She was pretty much the only girl I knew who was close to my age, and even though my uncle was big on trying to bag chicks, I played it safe and went with what I knew. We talked all the time, and one day for no reason that I can discern right now I decided that I was going to date two other girls first and then marry her. Well, my uncle suggested the “date other people first” part, so there’s that, but why I decided, knowing her not-at-all, that she was The One™ is completely beyond me. Chalk it up to ignorance and a fuzzy belief that God was in control.
One night, very late, I told her that I thought she was pretty and the sparks flew. I told her this over the internet. That lit that torch on fire, but the next one was still to come. I was excited and I called my uncle and he told me that I needed to get her family’s blessing. It sounded like a good idea at the time, but wait ’till I tell you.
It’s been over six years since that day, and I don’t really remember a lot of it except that her dad wanted us to court instead of date (thus the sort-of-girlfriend) and that he wanted to make sure I was consistently attending the same church. Not that church necessarily, but the same one every week, anyway.
Somebody is going to comment that my conversion was really just a matter of having a religious experience to be with her, but it wasn’t. At least I don’t think so, looking back now, but for a while later, I would.
She shared a couple of books by Eric and Leslie Ludy with me. In retrospect I would say that they’re horrible books and nobody should ever read them except as an exemplar of what not to do, but those books changed my life forever. I read their stories and the way they told it, God was all over their lives. God was connected and involved and in their lives and working constantly in mysterious ways to bring them together into the Perfect Relationship™. And I wanted that. Not just the perfect relationship, but the relationship with God. God help me, I wanted that.
So I called the pastor of my family’s conservative church and asked how to know God and he told me to pray for as long as I needed to. Also, read my Bible. So I hung up the phone and talked to the walls for about two hours straight. I got comfortable feeling like maybe somebody would listen. I got tired and I read the Bible. I figured John would be as good a place to start as any, so I read it. Halfway through I decided to get a shower and all of a sudden I felt the love of God and the whole thing hit me like an overused metaphor.
I went to church the next day ecstatic out of my mind, and the sermon was about how the Ethiopian Eunuch went looking for God and God found him and I was bowled over again with the tangibleness of the love of God.
There’s a story Max Lucado tells in one of his (many) books about how the older brother might have shown up after the prodigal father poured out blessings on his unworthy son. Older would have told younger that pop wanted the clothes kept spotless and the ring kept cleanly polished and is that a spot on that ring? That’s kind of what happened next except I didn’t need an older brother to say that stuff. The older brother was inside of me all along. The voice that whispered “You’re not good enough.”
My dad wanted me to give up my love for Contemporary Christian Music because it had a sinful beat and just made you wanna dance, but I knew that I couldn’t. The music itself that was part of my transformation. I wanted to let it go, but God was using it, so I decided God must have been okay with it. I still remember falling backwards onto my bed and asking, “God, what are you doing to me?”
I became obsessed with pleasing God. I bought a Bible that I felt like I could read and understand (New Living Translation). I read it all the time, and it felt like God was speaking right to me when I read it.
I moved back in with my parents. I spent countless hours arguing with my dad that God was a God of love. I told my not-girlfriend that I had to go to another church because that was where I felt God wanted me to go, and then I spiritually wrangled my heart into believing that God wanted me at my parents church because I had read a book called The Covering by John Bevere that OH DEAR GOD nobody should ever read but it seemed like a Godly Idea™ at the time.
I should mention that during this time, my heart was ablaze. I believed like you wouldn’t believe. I watched water rippling through the creek and knew deep in my soul that no one could ever doubt God. “Sure, we need water to survive,” I said to my imaginary atheist, “but why does it sparkle?”
I hung Bible verses in my cubicle at work. I even read the Bible in my cubicle. (I got in trouble for it, too, and I was just a little proud of myself for that). God was alive and trees and color and everything beautiful was proof of the existence of a benevolent deity. One time I told God that if he took away everything good in my life, I had already had a lifetime of joy.
Never pray prayers like that. God, or karma, or whatever, is gracious enough to save us from our ignorance in such matters.
On good Friday, I was driving to work and I realized that I thought more about her than I did about God. I knew that this must be wrong so I wrote the note with which I opened this story and I told her that I felt like God was calling me to give her up. I had to give her up because I wanted so much for us to be together that I knew God would never let it happen unless I did.
I’m pretty sure I was psychotic. I was also a jerk because I told her about it. She knew that I was on fire for God so she let it happen because if God wanted it then it must be the right thing.
So I walked back into the old coal mine across from my parents’ property and prayed for at least an hour. I prayed a lot back then. But not as much as I did later.
I remembered Abraham and how God had called Abraham to sacrifice what he valued most, and I felt that that’s what God had wanted me to do. Finally, an escape appeared. God never asked Abraham to give up Isaac, in the end. God just wanted Abraham to be willing to give up Isaac. I came back to the house and sent her a message explaining that I think God just wanted me to be willing to give her up, and I had been, so I was off the hook.
That summer I flew to Alaska to spend a few days with my aunt and uncle. Those days pulled off some of the crazy and I started believing that maybe God was okay with me being happy, so I talked to her dad again. We met at a restaurant near her house, and if the crazy hadn’t been on then, that’s when it kicked into high gear.
He wanted us to talk less.
Now, to any sane person, when a girl’s dad tells you he wants you two to talk less, you know that he means he wishes the two of you weren’t an item. But I was no sane person, and I just knew that if we followed his rules, he would one day pronounce his blessing on us and we could get married and live happily ever after. I started doing things to impress him. I mean, to impress God. I mean… And that’s where the conflictedness came back into play.
I had this half-vision of trying to pull snakes out of my chest, but no matter how many I pulled out, there were always more. I wanted to love God most but it was because I was sure that I loved her most. I was screwed and I didn’t know how to get out, so I asked the pastor and he told me that I just needed to pray more. I hadn’t really considered any other course of action, so his advice was little help.
That’s also when I moved out of my parents’ house and moved in with my grandparents. Then I discovered Mark Driscoll while I was driving for FedEx Ground. I listened pretty much exclusively to Christian radio. To say the least, I was really interested in how to have a Godly Christian Relationship™. I listened to one of MD’s sermons about what he believed the cross was about, and I called my not-girlfriend to tell her and she told me I was all fired up. She seemed pretty happy about that.
And then there was the time her dad told me that I was like a dog in heat. I should mention that we never touched. We never hugged or even held hands. Not once. There were whole bunches of crazy going on there, but I never saw them.
Now what I didn’t tell you was that during the entire course of both relationships, I had Sin In My Life™. I’d tried to break the (legal) habit, but every few months it would come back. I kept hinting that I was a terrible sinner but she didn’t believe me until I told her the details a few days before Christmas. She tearfully broke up with me a two nights before Christmas. I remember that I read her a few Psalms trying to keep her on the line, and when she told me that her parents said “We thought you wanted to marry somebody pure” the accusation etched itself indelibly into my heart, and I knew I would never be good enough. It was the most absolutely miserable Christmas of my life, and it felt a hell of a lot like dying.
The relationship had a few small fizzles, but when she set Taylor Swift’s “Picture to Burn” as her AOL Instant Messenger status, I knew it was over.
I went back to the other church, the one where I had thought God wanted me to go so long ago. I cried on my friend Jordan’s lap, and I cried on my friend Aaron’s shoulder for weeks. I read “Ragamuffin Gospel” by Brennan Manning. I read The Message. I read the Bible and Christian books so much that my grandma started to think I was going to be a preacher.
Finally, Aaron dragged me to a prayer group. I told them about my problem, and they told me they’d all struggled with it and that God had rescued them. The dying embers of my faith burst back to life. I prayed with them for hours every Saturday. It was the highlight of my week for months. I kept meeting people who struggled and trying to pull them into our group. That’s where I met Scotty and James.
Scotty invited me to work at Jumonville, a United Methodist camp where he had worked. James went to work there with me. A few weeks before we started, I met another girl at church who was going to work there. She was cute, and I was comfortable talking with her. It was a sign from God.
Jumonville cured some of my psychosis. The words “You are a beautiful, unrepeatable miracle. You are worth the air you breathe and the space you take up. God did not make a mistake when he created you” etched themselves indelibly into my heart. It was like breathing fresh air again for the first time since Alaska. The battle wasn’t over, but at last the other side was finally putting up a fight.
Jumonville was also where I met Kristen. We both liked Mark Driscoll, and the same day that I learned that, she came out of the basement of the cabin wearing an outfit I’d seen my wife wearing in a dream. (Yeah, it’s confusing, but it’s pretty cool and it’s part of why she kept coming back into my mind).
Then I went to college. I knew I’d find my wife when I went to college. It was kind of true, because I spent a lot of time talking to Kristen. When I had the chance to tell her she was beautiful, I told her she was a beautiful unrepeatable miracle and dodged the bullet. I was so cautious.
God basically disappeared from my life when I went to college. I prayed a lot, but it felt like all of a sudden, I was in a dorm room by myself in a senior dorm and God had walked away and left me alone here in a world far away from everything I knew. Kristen was pretty much my main connection to home, and even though I tried to limit our conversations, she says we talked a lot that first semester.
I moved to a freshman dorm. I got invited to a prayer group. I was relieved. God was still alive. Students were praying for revival right and left. I went to chapel and forgave God for letting me down like I knew he had.
The next summer I asked Kristen out. We hugged and danced before we dated. I told her I loved her shortly after we met in the first place. And we held hands within days of when I asked her out. Sanity was descending on my flaming heart.
Something strange happened, though. During the summer of 2011, I read Love Wins by Rob Bell. I highly recommend it, just for the provocation. I cried because I found it so beautiful. It nearly wrecked my relationship with Kristen. I read a series of articles on penal substitutionary atonement (the story that had gotten me all fired up when Mark Driscoll told it). It changed things even more than Love Wins.
I took a class on Biblical History and Literature. Another one on Revelation, and another on the Old Testament. I took a sociology class. Learning things changed my faith. I became more comfortable asking questions. My friends and I invited Mormons over to our apartment, and I found a whole lot more holes in my faith. I learned things. I started listening to NPR. By the time I was standing in the storage room at my dad’s house, Kristen and I were engaged and I hardly believed anything that I had when I was on fire.
So there I was, standing in the storage room at my dad’s house with the six-year-old note in my hand. I recoiled from it like it was a black widow spider and then wrinkled it up and dropped it into the trash bag.
Salvation had come. Somehow, God had saved me from my ideas about God. And maybe God still is.
There are a few things that I still miss, like the certainty that God is there and that God loves me and would have died just for me if it had come to that, and that when I read the Bible, God is speaking directly to me. I miss having no doubt that God had good plans for my life and would only ever do good. It’s odd, because even though everything has indeed turned out for good, I still wrestle with it. When I look back and imagine how my life could have been, I’m horrified. And when I look over at my beautiful bride Kristen, it fills me with a deep joy.
And maybe I still am on fire. I have finally heard a story that I think might be worth sharing. Maybe I’ll blog that next.
In which Kristen and I try to get free movie tickets in exchange for test driving a car.
When Kristen and I opened our new credit union account, we noticed a coupon for two free movie tickets if you test drive a new car at any of the dealerships on a list. Now, Monsters University just came out, and Kristen has been dying to see MU since last year, and we’re between jobs, and money is tight. So we found a car that looked promising at one of the dealerships on the list. Promising because she really could use a car once she gets a job, and I haven’t taught her to drive stick yet.
So we drove off to the dealership. As our luck would have it, the car we wanted to look at was in the shop in the back of the dealership getting repairs done. “You can’t test drive it tonight,” said the salesman. “Wanna come back tomorrow?” We agreed on a time to meet him. No test drive, no tickets. Strike one.
But just around the corner was another dealership on the list! We drove down and met a salesman. We told him our price range but didn’t really like anything he had available in our range. “Come back any time. We’ll get a lot more over the weekend.” No test drive, and therefore no tickets.
Frustration was building. It was getting later, and the dealerships were going to be shutting down. “Let’s just test-drive a new car,” I said. There was a Honda dealership across the street. We compared the name to the list and drove over. We fared much better. “We just want to have a look around first.” We browsed. We looked. The salesman gave us a closer look and let us in.
We found one, finally, miles outside of our price range. “Would we be able to drive it around the parking lot?” Kristen asked. The salesman hopped in the back and Kristen drove to the office where the salesman photocopied our driver’s licenses and picked up a license plate. We weren’t really fans of that car, so we sat in a Kia and test-drove a Civic, which we kinda liked.
The time came. We went into the building. The salesman sat us down with his sales manager, who told us what the car was worth. We told them the truth, that we couldn’t afford it, but that maybe when we got jobs and had more money we might like that car. We talked about leasing for a while, but it was still obvious that we couldn’t afford it, not now.
The salesman got up to get us his card, and I handed him the coupon from the credit union. He walked off. I smiled at Kristen. Finally. Our tickets were as good as ours. He returned without the tickets.
“I was talking to my manager, and…” Things had taken a turn for the worse. He showed us the list and pointed to the name of his dealership on the paper, and then to the name of his dealership on the wall. They were not the same. We had misread the name, and they weren’t even part of the offer. Strike three.
Kristen and I walked out. I was grinning because it was all so dumb. We’d struck out three times.
We gave up, went to the theater, and paid for our own tickets.
Edit: The next day, we went back to the first dealership and test-drove the car we’d seen online. We liked it. The salespeople were relatively high-pressure. They offered us a ridiculously low price on our potential trade, which magically increased by 150% when we told them it wouldn’t work.
Eventually we told them that we weren’t going to buy today and asked for our movie tickets. The salesman went to talk to his manager and came back with a coupon for a couple free nights at a hotel. He said they were all out of movie tickets.
After we got home, I did a little digging around on the internet. The dealership had paid $99 a year for the right to print off an unlimited amount of those free night at a hotel coupons, and if 33 people use those in that year, they get it all back.
I ripped up the “free movie tickets with a test drive” coupon and threw it in the trash.
I knew when I took out the trash this morning that today was going to be the day that we bought a couch. I could sense it. I just had no idea how difficult that would be.
2:11 I get a text from the guy who was selling it. Kristen and I had both agreed that we wanted said couch. I tell him that we wanted to come look at it. So far, so good.
2:30 We arrive to look at the couch. It smells kinda funky, but it seems clean of all pests and clean overall, and the price is right. We tell the guy that we like it, and would he please hang onto it for us until we can stop at an ATM for cash, then go to Lowe’s and rent a pickup truck because we don’t have one or know anybody in Colorado Springs who has one. He says he’ll wait. So far, so good.
3:00 We arrive at Lowe’s, halfway across town and hop on the kiosk to rent a truck. It’s super-cool because this lady named Taylor talks to us with this videoconferencing kiosk thingy. We give her our information and agree to the terms and conditions. A guy gives us a $15 off your first rental coupon, which she applies to our account. Score! She gives us 5 minutes extra to go find the truck. …So far, so good.
3:15 We’re out in the parking lot looking for the truck. It is frickin’ nowhere to be found. The lady from Lowe’s looks very confused. She has no idea where that truck is. We drive all over the parking lot looking, and even go around back. She starts making calls.
3:40 We’ve given up on finding it, and I’m on the phone with Hertz. Apparently, someone else has rented the truck that we’ve rented, and they still have it, and that’s why it’s not there, but it’s due back by 4:00. “Do you want to reserve it for then?”
“No,” I tell him. “4:05, just to be safe.”
4:10 There is still no truck. I call Hertz again. The guy says he’ll call the people with the truck and find out why they’re not back yet, because they should be. I ask him to call me back.
4:20 “I couldn’t get ahold of them.” I tell him to make the reservation for 4:30 and if they’re not back yet, we’ll cancel.
4:30 This is getting really old. I call Hertz and cancel. I ask for a credit of some kind, in case hell freezes over and I ever decide to do this again. Then I start looking up numbers for U-Haul.
4:45 I call U-Haul. They definitely have a pickup truck, at a comparable price. “We’ll be there by 5.”
5:00 The line at U-Haul is a mile long.
5:15 It’s been 2 hours and 45 minutes. I’ve been keeping the guy up-to-date, and he agrees to wait. Finally, at
5:30, We have a truck.
5:45 We pull in front of the guy’s house, ready to pick up our couch and give him his… Dangit. We forgot to stop at an ATM. Why does this stuff seem like it only happens to me?
6:00 This is ridiculous. We found a Wells Fargo, but we pulled into the (not-marked-at-all) main lane instead of the ATM lane. We can’t turn around, we can’t back up, and the way to the ATM lane is, predictably for today, blocked. We pull into a service station with a sign that says “ATM INSIDE!” Kristen suggests I get some gas while she runs in and withdraws the money.
6:05 One space clears and I pull in to pump. On the wrong side, of course. Kristen comes out. “The ATM is broken.” Fortunately, Wells Fargo is right next door. I text the guy with the couch. “Ten more minutes isn’t a big deal.” We’ve kept him waiting half the day, so why not?
6:15 We get back to the guy’s house and load up the couch. Finally. But he doesn’t have any change whatsoever. We just give him the extra $5, and he promises to mail us our change. We hope he does.
6:30 Back to the apartment with our couch. I return the truck. Everything’s fine. We’re both starving. Little Caesar’s is $5 for a large pizza, but Red Baron pizza is $2.99 at Safeway. After we haul the couch in and Kristen dumps half a box of baking soda on the stinky couch, we’re on that pizza like baking soda on a… ya know.
6:45 I thought the tall triangular building was Safeway. Clearly (now) it was Ace. It wasn’t a very helpful place. I drove back toward Safeway and asked Kristen why she didn’t tell me where it was. “I thought it was obvious!” Clearly it wasn’t to me. We go in through the left doors.
7:00 The line at checkout takes forever. We left our Safeway card …somewhere… and our number isn’t in the system. We snag one from the lady behind us and drive back to the apartment before something worse happens, like getting pulled over for speeding. Speaking of which, at least that didn’t happen.
7:25 The timer goes off. We ignore it, but we made it. The pizza was fine. Actually, it was pretty delicious. Thank God.
And now we have a couch. A very expensive couch, time-wise. But a couch nonetheless. Thank you for tolerating my little story.
Thomas Edwards and I packed up the gear for the giant swing at Jumonville into my car and drove out from topside toward the cross. As we got there, we came upon Donna, one of the leaders for the group we’d been facilitating at the swing. She told us one of the most incredible stories about the ways some of the members of her group, a retreat for families with disabilities, had been treated at Jumonville and on their retreats as contrasted with everywhere outside. As we sat listening to her story in my old Honda, Thomas nudged me and I knew it too: this was why I’d spent the past four summers and he’d spent the past two here.
Donna finished her story, and we drove down in silence to the part of the road called Hairpin. I stopped my car and we got out to watch the sun drop slowly over those blue hills miles and miles away. I told Thomas that my only regret for that summer was that I hadn’t stopped to see this more often. I stared out over the expanse, letting the last four years wash over my soul like flashbacks, hearing old, echoey voices.
The first was Scotty’s.
My friend Scotty introduced me to Jumonville, a United Methodist camp on top of one of the Allegheny Mountains in Southwestern Pennsylvania. We visited one unusually warm day in the week between Christmas and New Year’s in 2008. After an afternoon and evening wandering the campus, Scotty mentioned to me that “They’re always looking for people to work here.” In that moment, there in the driver’s seat of my car, looking around the campus with its almost magical lamps, I whispered words out the window: “God, could I do that?”
The first interview, where I met Ree Enlow and Larry Beatty. I vaguely remember Larry taking my picture; I remember playing games (at the interview!). I remember somebody asking Brittany Mancini what Jesus would say if he were there. “I think… he’d say something that would impact every single person in this room in a way they needed it.” We put Ree in the hot seat. I can’t remember what questions we asked her, but I know she ended with these words: “You are all already a part of the Jumonville family.” She looked around the little circle, about ten people in all, making eye contact with each of us, and spoke these words:
“You are a beautiful, unrepeatable miracle.
You are worth the air you breathe
and the space you take up.
God did not make a mistake when he created you.”
Cool, clean water rushed over my broken soul as I remembered people who had asked me what my excuse was for taking up space and oxygen.
I still remember where I was on Route 30 when I called to ask her to repeat what she had said so that I could write it down. I printed those words out. I framed them and hung them on my wall. A few months later, I sat in a room in Ree’s house, journalling. “I think she really believes it.” I didn’t know what to do. She believed I was a beautiful unrepeatable miracle. Me, with my sad history and sad story and lack of ambition and sense of purpose.
I have learned so much. I’ve learned to respect myself, and been respected by others. I’ve learned to love and to be loved. I’ve learned how to grow up – how to be childlike without being childish. (Which isn’t to say that I do it all the time). I’ve wept over people I hurt when I didn’t do my job as well as I should have, and I learned to do it better. I learned how to lead without being distant.
I used four-letter words in conversations with God in the chapel where I wrestled with not knowing what was going to happen next. I played ping-pong without a net in the office with Ashley, had a sword fight with spoons on the way up to the kitchen with Brittany, and told the most beautiful girl in the world that I liked her at the Adirondack chairs. I sang for Wednesday worship and told hundreds of kids that they too were beautiful unrepeatable miracles. I found a place where I could safely ask any question I wanted to ask about God, and found a music album filled with questions I’d always been afraid to ask, or hadn’t even known that I could ask.
I registered thousands of kids in those two summers, many of them returning kids. Some of them found out I wasn’t going to make it back next year, and they tried to talk me into coming back again, but I told them I wished I could, but it just wouldn’t work.
I learned to rock climb, to lead rock climbing, and to teach others how to lead rock climbing. Oh, but that’s just the vehicle for the confidence I found. Nate and Ree believed in me, and they taught me to believe in me. And one day when my competency broke down and an angry older man yelled at me for setting up one of his people for failure, on that day when the flood of tears threatened to break through my soul to my eyes, Nate looked me square in the face and said he knew what it was about, that it was about my self-worth and confidence all over again. Ree gave me twenty minutes to go cry, and I went to my room and wept through Psalm 139, letting scripture rebuild my value as a person. Then Ree took me into the back room and we went over belay training again until I got back my confidence.
I’ve learned that in spite of everything I’ve done and everything I continue to do, I am loved. Loved without condition and without requirement.
Thomas and I got back in my car and we drove back down. A week or so later when I turned in my keys, Ree cried. I haven’t cried yet, but I expect that it’s coming when it finally sinks in.
That night with Thomas, I stared out across the vast expanse spread before my eyes. It was as if God had made it just for me. Every inch of that property holds a memory for me; some inches more than others. I could go on for pages and pages with beautiful memories, and maybe one day I will. My heart ached that this was to be my final summer on staff at Jumonville. In some ways, it still does, but I know what I have to do, and I know that more than working at Jumonville for the rest of my life, I want to be a good husband and father, and I can’t do that on the hours I’d have to work to come back there when I’m done with college.
One last story: A former Jumonville staff member once told me that his two summers on staff were the best of his life. And I promised myself that I would never say that, that I would never think my best summers were in the past. For a while, my plan was to do everything I could to stay on at Jumonville. But now I can see my way clear to leave the place I love more than anywhere else on earth. It’s for the person I love more than anyone else on earth, and the people not yet born whom I’m sure I’ll grow to love more than any other kids on earth.
I love Jumonville, and I will always treasure the people and the memories from each one of my four Jumonville summers. But it’s time to pack up my metaphorical bags and go where God is leading me next. It’s bittersweet, but I know in my heart and soul and mind that it’s time. I’ve learned so much and been stretched so much. But it’s time to go be stretched somewhere else, in other ways. Teach For America, maybe.
God bless everyone. Much love to my Jumonville family and to all my other families. Peace be with you all.
My sister Maria and I had sold cold pop outside my parents’ home for forty-five cents a can for most of the summer to raise enough money for us to go to church camp, and there we were. It was at some point in the middle of the week. The whole camp had assembled and the leaders told us about the game we were about to play: Take this piece of paper and walk down the road toward the pool.
One by one, we each took the walk down the road. My turn came. As I walked down the road, I met two counselors. “Okay, just down the road are two more people. Don’t talk to them, no matter what they say. They’re going to try to deceive you.”
Being a wise young evengelical, my ears perked at the word “Deceive.” Isn’t Satan a deceiver? I assured them I would follow their instructions and went on down the road, where I met the two counselors playing the evil demons bent on my deception. They were, like the other two, very nice, but I knew they were going to try to trick me. I may as well have been wearing blinders and had my ears stuffed with cotton balls.
Another traveler showed me his paper. The two evil demons had drawn a cross on it. I knew they were up to no good.
We arrived at the fence around the pool, where a fifth counselor waited. “Show me your paper.” I did. “You’re outside.” My companion showed his. “Go in.”
The group inside the fence was rather small, and the group outside, large. Those inside were as certain they were in heaven as those of us outside were convinced they were in hell. After all, they were trapped inside a fence.
After what seemed like forever, the leaders arrived and told us the truth: Those inside the fence, who had disobeyed their first instructions, were in heaven, and we, the dogs who only did what we were told to do, were in hell.
The pastor preached a message that evening. I have no idea what it was about, but I suspect he pointed out how few people had ended up in “heaven.”
The irony of this story is that the group that I started with in real life, the group that told me not to listen to the deceivers, were Christians.
The lesson may better be learned in reverse: Listen to the “deceivers.” Have an open mind. The truth can stand up to scrutiny. And whenever somebody tells you not to listen to another person’s perspective because they’re going to try to trick you, consider the possibility that their motive may be to prevent you from realizing that they don’t think the beliefs they’ve tried to ingrain in you will stand up to scrutiny. And if they don’t believe it, why should you?
“The Truth” and “The First Story You Hear” aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive, but if you don’t hold the first story you hear up to scrutiny and examine other perspectives, you’ll never know whether they are in your case. You’ll just believe they are the same, and live in the fear that some deceiver will trick those you’ve persuaded with clever-sounding arguments and pesky “facts.”
Disclaimer: I’m still a Christian, and still figuring out exactly what that means. I’m just not that kind.
This morning Ree left the office with a headache. She left me a list of things to buy at Lowe’s. So I asked Andrew to come with me, and we took a maintenance truck down to Lowe’s. It was a very manly truck. It was very dirty, filled with random tools (which were also dirty) and the radio was set to an 80s rock station. Also, the speedometer didn’t work. We felt very manly indeed.
We arrived at Lowe’s, that awesome place where men go shopping. We walked in like we owned the place and headed over to the lumber section. We had to get a special big blue cart to carry our lumber. I found the 2x4s and 4x4s and 4x6s and the sheets of plywood. Andrew pushed the cart by himself. He said it made him feel manly. We got a lot of wood.
We checked out and I pulled the truck around, and we loaded it up. The bed was just the right size to load up with 4×8 sheets of plywood. It was almost as though it was designed for manly men like us to load our manly truck with wood. We attached a red flag to the back of the truck, and I told Andrew that I needed to blog about this experience and how manly it was. Continue reading →
I love telling stories. I especially love telling true stories about love and such… but I’m not sure how to begin this one. I’m not sure how much backstory my readers will tolerate… but I’ll try to keep it entertaining. Some people say their fiction is personal; all stories are personal. Some say their stories are “based on a true story.” Every story is, at least the good ones. This one is true. And personal.
Jumonville, Summer 2010
Training had started. Life was breathless. I’d moved out of my apartment in Greensburg and taken the long exciting ride down south to Uniontown and driven up Jumonville road for the third time in my life and moved into Ree Enlow’s house about a week earlier. I’d shared a room with James Moran, one of my closest friends from before I had ever once visited Jumonville. Ree loved on us like we were the last people in the world she could love. For the second time in my life, I felt like I was breathing fresh mountain air after breathing deisel exhaust all my life. (The first time was Alaska with my Uncle John and Aunt Linda.) The lies about my value were fighting with everything they had, and for the first time since the breakup, the lies were facing violent opposition.
I eventually grew to love everyone on staff that summer… but this story is about something different then brotherly and sisterly love. In fact, the first time I told Kristen “I love you” was probably less than a few weeks after I met her. (I said the words “I love you” to everyone at Jumonville often.) Kristen asked me not to because those were words she only wanted to hear from her husband. I worried about that, prayed about it… and opted to explain that way I meant it wasn’t a romantic way and keep saying it.
I think the first time I knew there was something special about her was when I was facilitating the zip line multi-level. She didn’t seem scared; she just said “I love You, Jesus!” and slid off the platform. It made me pause and wonder. I knew then that her relationship with God was real. Her Jesus was a friend, not someone she believed in like some kids believe in Santa Claus.
One time, too, after we went prayer-walking, she came back especially crushed. (The whole story is here.) There was a woman Nate had seen in the spirit who had been raped, and Kristen had prayed for her. In that moment and in many others, I saw grace in her. I could tell that she got grace.
And then there were the Bible studies. I went along to them and was a brat. I mean, I tried to honestly answer the questions people asked, but there were legitimately times when I just hijacked the conversation and took it down a rabbit trail for no good reason. It was a biblical rabbit-trail, but a rabbit-trail nonetheless. But as the summer progressed, our conversations got deeper. We ended up talking about God for as much as an hour after everyone else left. I spoke passionately about how God loves us all the time no matter what, and when we don’t feel His love it’s because we’ve put up defenses against Him. I preached. And I left that night with a smile on my face because I had spent an hour alone with a girl and (1) there was nothing romantic going on, and (2) no one would suspect that there was! We were brother-and-sister.
I woke up this morning from a dream about being at Jumonville. Summer Staff 2011. And I realized that, come summer 2011, most of the people that I knew and loved from Summer 2009 won’t be there. The Beattys, Ree, Craig, Ashley Crago, and maybe David Orr will still be there… but Kristen will be gone (sort of)… Nate, Tyler, Brittany, Sara, Rob, Mike Nuss, Will, Carrie, James, Caitlin (both of the Caitlins)… and it stung. I could feel their absence at Jumonville already. I could see its emptiness without them there, and hear their voices and laughter in its silence. Even some of the friends I made during summer 2010 will be gone come next year. I think Nate’s gonna hurt the most, though, because he was more than a supervisor. He was the big brother I never had. I’m gonna miss him, especially while I’m making schedules and figuring out how to fix stuff… this time I’m going to be the improviser. We worked together all the time. …At least I’ll have another adventure staff I already know and love: Margo. And that’s a relief.
Then I remembered how it felt this year. I didn’t feel people’s absence as much because I was around other people I loved. And I don’t feel their absence so much now that I’m around still other people I love, here at school. And I realized that loving the people you’re with is really the only way around the holes left in your heart by the people you love who are now in the rear-view mirror. “New people” can never fill the holes created by those in the rear-view. They just create new holes. But in their presence, you forget the holes left by those in the rear-view. To love someone else is deeply is the only way to feel less hurt from the holes left by those who are gone. But it’s hard. Cynicism takes you hostage and lies to you.
Cynicism is one of the ugliest perversions of Imago Dei. We are made to love and be loved, but we grow instead to despise those made, like us, in His image and likeness, thinking that the ones we meet now aren’t as good as those we knew then. But everything changes. And in change, there is both the bad of sin’s corruption and the good holiness with which the world was made. Imago Dei and “very good” mesh together with fall and curse and sin. And the body and blood of Jesus is kneaded into the whole mix, generating hope – hope for a day when our glorious King will return in power and majesty and finally set all things right. But until that day comes, all creation groans with longing. The heavens and earth declare God’s glory, and at the same time the earth cries out for the return of the King.