Friday, June 18, 2010

On Community

A little less than a year ago Corrine and I joined a bible study group.  A couple of our friends had an idea to start a small, in-home bible study group with us and a few other close friends of ours.  We thought it was a great idea.  We started our bi-weekly, child free, bible study shortly after. 

When we first started it was a bit awkward.  This is mostly because nobody really knew where we were going to start, what we were going to be studying, and how deep we were going to go.  So our first meeting was pretty much setting the foundational ground rules for our group.  We hummed and hawed about how we’d like it to be this or that, all surface level stuff.  Finally someone said, “I want this to be deep.  I’ve been in a lot of surface level bible studies that I get bored with.  I want this to be life changing.”

Why is it that we feel that we have to be over protective of ourselves?  And is this healthy?  Is it healthy to hide our emotions, our thoughts, our ambitions with others?  Is it healthy to hide our pain and fears from others?  I think to a certain level.  But I think we need to really rethink why we’re doing it.  We each have a past; we each have things that we feel guilty about, things that we’re embarrassed about.  But what is it that keeps us from sharing ourselves, and more so, what is this hiding keeping us from?

I transferred to Oak Hills halfway through my junior year.  Now transferring so late isn’t recommended.  It added another year onto my education, which meant more school loans.  When I transferred, Corrine and I were six months into what turned out to be a two year engagement.  It was very hard for me to enter into the community at Oak Hills.  I figured I’d be out of there soon enough, I didn’t have to try and make friendships that were going to dissipate after two years.

The first couple months were tough for me.  I had a dink as a roommate (who flunked out after only a month), everybody had their own cliques already, and I was the new guy.  I could see how everyone else was relating to each other.  My semester at BSU I had a dorm room all to myself and an Xbox, so I didn’t make any friends there.  I grew to be content with living alone, it was comfortable, I didn’t have to watch what I said or who I said it to.  I was the King of my domain, which was a 12’ x 12’ room across the hall from the bathrooms.  So when I moved out to Oak Hills, and they had different things set up to encourage community, I grew into a wall flower.  It was the loneliest I have ever felt.  Luckily one of the community building programs they have at Oak Hills is a small group program.  

Once a month during chapel time we’d split off into small groups.  The small groups had a wide variety.  There was trail hiking to playing Rook to poetry to cooking.  The small group I chose was the Men’s small group.  The OHCC Director of Men, John Weir, was leading a small group.  Some of the guys that I had started to befriend were joining this group, and like the tag-a-long I was, I went with them.  What I didn’t know is how this small group was going to change me. 

I attended the small group thinking it was going to be a bunch of guys burping, farting, talking sports and hunting, and maybe even tearing a wall down just to rebuild it again.  Well, I was wrong.  We met in John’s office on couches.  We’d talk about feelings, emotions, why we feel we have to be macho.  We’d talk about how we validate ourselves as men.  I was hit by a ton of bricks.  Never before had I entered into this sort of personal evaluation. 

I didn’t say as much as some of the other guys.  Both my parents were still married and loved each other.  My father was a huge part of my life and I didn’t have to deal with the idea of fatherlessness like some of the other guys.  When that semester ended, I walked away a new, contemplative and emotionally healthy man. 
I tell you this story because if it weren’t for the community that I lived in at Oak Hills, I don’t think I’d be the same today.  Community is set up to be life changing.  It’s set up to improve us, help us grow, and better us as people.  The question we need to ask ourselves is, do we feel that same community in church?  And if not, why not?  And the biggest question is how to we change the way we’re doing things to better improve our church community?  The answer is not to leave our church and find something different.  The answer lies within each of us; it’s the blessed spirit of unity that comes through the gospel.  That’s why the Bible talks so much about marriages between men and women, God and his people, Christ and the church, etc.  It’s the same reason that the Bible talks against division.  Christ calls us into unity as a community.  It’s through this community that we grow individually and change lives.  And if we don’t change lives, then we’re just another meeting on the calendar.  And that could be the furthest thing from Christ as anything.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Chapter 3 – Rest and Legalism

I have a hard time being content.  In everything I’m involved with, I’m always thinking that I should improve the way it’s currently operating.  I do this in my marriage, as a father, in my faith, with my youth, in my church; the list goes on and on.  Right now Corrine and I are driving two cars with 220k+ miles on them.  Of course they’re Buicks with the 3800 motor in them which means that they’ll probably run until Jesus returns.  At which point Jesus will climb off his white horse and hop in the Buick because it’ll last longer than some silly Mr. Ed.  But even though we have two reliable cars I’m still thinking that we need to get something better.  Now there are a lot of cars out there that are better than 21 and 13 year old cars with close to a quarter million miles each.  And if Corrine and I really buckled down, we could probably replace one of the cars within a matter of months.  But I still can’t help but look at all the nice cars that pass me on the highway.  I’m still looking, thinking, “Hey, it wouldn’t be bad to drive one of those,” or, “I wouldn’t get one of those, I hear they break down pretty easily.”  So being content is tough for me.
                I used to tell myself that there’s never a time that I should be content in my faith.  Because there’s always something that I could be working on.  I could be praying more, reading my Bible more, and serving others more.  I can remember times where I’ve had a pretty good devotional time, spending time praying on my way to work, AND in the midst of a large service project with the youth and I’m STILL not content.  Isn’t the reason Christ came was to bring peace?  If I’m doing all these things and still not feeling peace is my heart in the right place?  And if not, how do I get it to the right place?
                Last night our lesson in youth group was about Spiritual Practices and Legalism.  We were discussing various spiritual practices such as prayer, Bible study, and fasting.  Then the question came up, “How do we differentiate between practicing spiritual disciplines to enter into deeper relationship with God and legalism?”  The youth were having a difficult time explaining it, some were clueless.  And then it hit me, I don’t know.  I stumbled over my words and came up with some sort of answer like, “When we go through the day marking them off a list, then it’s more likely it’s legalism.”  After thinking through my explanation later that night I came to the conclusion that even though I despise legalism, my faith and lack of contentment is largely due to legalism.  I have grabbed onto the verse in James that talks about showing our faith by what we do.  But instead of doing those things because of my faith, I’ve been doing those things to show that I have faith, to prove to everyone else that I have a deeply seated faith.  But the only problem is that I haven’t proven to myself that my faith is that deep.  I look at everything that I’ve done and see that it’s only because of my selfish desires to prove myself “Uber-Christian” that I have done these things.  So how do I turn things around?  Do I drop everything and start from new?  Or do I refocus and start seeking deep, intimate relationship with Christ amidst the practices?
                I’ve never been good at being consistent in my Bible study.  From time to time I’ve tried to read a chapter or two each day.  But what eventually happens is that I get to the book of Numbers or Deuteronomy and I lose interest.  It usually takes a week to figure out that I’m reading the words, but not reading the words.  I’ll get through my reading for the day and find that I don’t remember anything of what I just read.  So what do I do? I stop reading.  My “Through the Bible in a Year” always stalls out before I’m even out of the Pentateuch.  It’s pretty sad that I’m working in the church, helping to disciple the youth, and I can’t finish reading the book of Deuteronomy because it becomes too old-hat.
                But what is the biggest crime of this legalism?  Why is legalism so bad?  The first response is always something to the effect of, “You’re trying to earn your way into heaven.”  Well that’s true, but I think there’s something even worse that legalism and the lacking contentment keeps us from. 
                I once had a crush on a girl in high school.  Her name was Lacey.  She was a townie like me.  My mom used to sell Mary Kay make-up and Lacey’s mom was my mom’s advisor.  We used to go to each other’s birthday parties each year when we were young.  Throughout school we were always close to the top of our class.  We were pretty good friends, but she cared about grades way more than I did and so we didn’t hang out.  The day I realized that Lacey and I would never work out was sometime in our sophomore or junior year.  I was walking back from class to my locker.  We had just gotten our grades back from the previous semester and I was pleased with my grades, nothing too serious that my parents would be upset with.  I made it through another semester unscathed.  To be perfectly honest, I was more concerned about what my parents thought of my grades than what my grades actually were.
                So I was walking back to my locker.  Lacey’s locker was only a couple down from mine and as I walked past I noticed Lacey had her head stuck in her locker.  I thought it was somewhat weird to stick your head in the locker.  Especially if you’ve had gym class the hour before and your stinky gym clothes were in there making your history book smell like a jock strap.  As I walked by I said hi to her.  She did some sort of acknowledging wave while continuing with her head in her locker.  I thought this was a little weirder than normal, so I thought I’d see if everything was alright.  So as any decent gentleman would do, I asked, “What’s up?”  What turned to me was the face of a woman that seemed as though she’d been crying for days over the loss of a husband or family member.  Her face was red like a stop sign and I’m sure there was a pool of tears in the bottom of her locker.  And do you know why she was crying?  Do you know what was causing this life-ending pain that brought her to the brink of depression?  She said to me in a small, squeak of a voice as if her vocal chords were as swollen as her eyes, “I *sniff sniff* got a *sniff* B in History…*sniff sniff*.”  I said something to the effect of, “That’s ok, I got three B’s this semester.  It’s no big deal.”  That didn’t help the matter.  She replied, “It’s NOT ok.  This ruins EVERYTHING!” and she stormed off down the hallway.
                What was going on here?  Well, a long time before this, Lacey had made a commitment to get a perfect 4.0 through high school.  The thing about a 4.0 is that a B does generally throw that out the window.  She had put this heavy load on her shoulders, and she dropped it.  It wasn’t that she was a bad student.  She’s the best student I’ve ever known.  She got countless scholarships for college, earned many academic awards through high school and college and even with that one B she was still the Valedictorian.  So what did that B do to her?  It made all the work preceding it seem to be done in vain.  It screamed at her telling her she was a failure.  Every time that she thought of it, it would tell her that no matter how hard she tried she was not as good as what she should be.  It told her that all of those late nights and hard work she had put into her education was worthless.  It showed her that as tired as she was, no amount of work is enough.  It proved to her that there would be no rest because she’d always have to work harder to live up to her own standards.  And isn’t this what legalism does to us?
                The greater crime that legalism commits is not that it tells us we can earn our way into heaven.  But rather it steals our Sabbath rest from us.  Legalism promotes and encourages us to never rest, always try harder, and never stop.  There’s always something to be improved and you cannot rest until it is so.  Some people will say, “I’ll rest when I’m dead.”  Well, that’ll probably be sooner rather than later, because stress causes heart disease, and heart disease causes death.  There’s no contention that legalism is the perverted replacement for relationship with Christ.  Legalism robs any sort of relationship of the deep intimate connection with Christ.  And how are we supposed to have true Sabbath rest when our relationship is a list on a legal pad?  Do we run our other relationship in this way?  Do we relate to our spouses by going through the list?  Maybe some of us do, maybe that’s why the divorce rate is so high in the U.S.  Do we relate to our best friends this way?  Probably not.  But if so, how deep is our relationship with our closest friends?  Do you ever wonder why it’s so hard to actually talk with them about what’s going on in your head or heart?
                So why is Sabbath rest so important?  The ancient Hebrews practiced a pretty orthodox Sabbath and Jesus called them out on it.  Jesus would go out alone to rest and his disciples would call him back to minister to the people.  Is Sabbath rest as important as we make it out to be?  Yes.  In Psalm 46 the Psalmist says, “Be still and know that I am God.” In Psalm 23, David writes, “He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters, he restores my soul.” And in 1 Kings the author talks about a meeting between Elijah and God:
The LORD said, "Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the LORD, for the LORD is about to pass by."Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake.  After the earthquake came a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper.  When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave.  Then a voice said to him, "What are you doing here, Elijah?" (1 Kings 19:11-13)
Even in Genesis it says that God rested on the seventh day.  What comes after this in Chapter 2?  It’s the account of God creating Adam and Eve.  But I think what’s more important is that once he’s done creating he walks in the garden with them.  You see God was there during the creation, but he was walking with them, relating with them after he was done creating and when he was resting.  This is the most important part of the Sabbath.  Not that we get a breather from all of our work.  Rather the Sabbath rest is where we can best relate to God.  It almost seems like taking a family vacation to help reconnect with your spouse or kids.  Sure they’re there during the work week, but you’re working and going through the day.  You might talk a little bit here or there, but how much are we actually working on our relationships during the work week?  It’s not the stories of how mom and dad worked through the week that I remember from my childhood.  Rather it’s the times where we’d go on vacation, to the Black Hills, to Cass Lake, camping, whatever.  It’s the times playing catch in the backyard with my dad.  It’s the weekends we’d take the boat to the lake and go tubing and fishing for the day.  It’s these times spent alone with my mom and dad that are the foundations of our relationship.  Not just the fun things, but the intimate conversations and growth that comes with it.  And if it’s this way with good friends and family, wouldn’t it be the same with God?  Sure we can try and see God in the everyday.  And some of us are moderately successful at it.  But if we’re not taking a day for Sabbath rest each week or an extended Sabbath weekend once a month, or both, how are we supposed to grow deeper with God?
                I absolutely love family get togethers.  This past month I’ve been able to see my family every couple of weeks.  I have a new niece that was born and baptized and my younger brother graduated from college.  Since my parents live 10 hours away and my brothers each live three and four hours away from me, getting together can be fairly difficult for us.  But when we are able to get together, there’s nothing short of rest for each of us.  My mom and dad get to enjoy their grandchildren, my brothers and I get to goof off and everyone enjoys their choice of fine brew and fine cigars around the bonfire at night.  But if we didn’t take the time to get together and relax and relate to one another, how would be keep our relationships close?  Isn’t it the same with relating to God?  If we’re not taking the time to rest with God, how are we supposed to keep close to him?  How are we supposed to depend on him when we don’t know him?  It’s through these times of resting with God, listening for the still small voice of God that we grow deeper with him.
                Now I’ve stated before that I’m not good at my spiritual disciplines and that they are currently pretty legalistic.  But over the course of writing this chapter I’ve found myself opening up to truths and emotions that I haven’t felt since I worked at camp and would take long walks in the woods and along the lakeshore alone.  Of course I wasn’t alone, but rather walking with God.  I do long for the time to take those walks again.  But maybe it’s my job to seek out those times.  Or maybe the best advice comes from the famed Red Green, “I'm a man, but I can change, if I have to, I guess”

Thursday, June 10, 2010

What I Learned As a Townie: Chapter 2

Sorry it's been a few days since chapter 1.  I'll have to rewrite it a bit with some more accurate info that my mom gave me about my Grandpa.  But here's chapter 2.

Chapter 2 – The Beginning: Part Deux
It was a late wintery night in January, my junior year in high school.  It was your typical run of the mill evening.  My older brother was away to college the preceding fall so it was quite a bit quieter in the house.  My younger brother then moved down the hall so we both had our own bedrooms. On this seemingly ordinary evening, things unseen were working through my head.  First a little back story.
                The previous summer I had my first girlfriend.  Being your typical high school boy my desires were less than noble.  Our infatuation started that May.  I’d always been overly nervous around good looking girls, and when I had heard that the girl that I was interested was also interested in me, I did the only manly thing and had a friend ask her out for me.  I know…Casanova!  Corrine’s mother and father were quite a bit stricter than my parents.  The beginning of the summer was a summer filled with rainbows and blooming flowers as we shared our first kiss, went to romantic movies, and learned so much about each other.  As young teenagers our passions raged for each other.  It was a passion that paralleled Romeo and Juliet or the young couple in the Song of Solomon.  Physically we became closer and closer.  Our love seemed to be blossoming at an exponential rate, until Corrine put the brakes on.  If it weren’t for Corrine’s foundational moral compass, we would have spiraled into actions and outcomes that we were nowhere near mature enough to handle.  In a nice, well written, honest letter, Corrine explained to me that she wasn’t comfortable where we were at and what we were doing.  She didn’t break it off then, but being the mature and honest man that I was, I did what every teenage dog would do, I quit talking to her.
                After Corrine broke up with me I felt like a new man.  I had braved the girlfriend world and was now wiser and more attuned to the world of women.  I went to more parties and hung out with more friends.  I started drinking at the ripe old age of 16.  It wasn’t that I really cared for the taste of it, but rather it was what the people I was hanging out with were doing, and therefore I thought it’d be fun.  And it WAS fun.  We’d go out, I’d get plowed, crawl home after my folks were in bed and then start it all over again next week.  In Rural America it seems easy to binge drink for teens.  There’s usually someone that willing to buy for teens and there’s nothing else to do.  So what did we do?  We drank.  I had some friends that were into the drug scene, it wasn’t for me.  About the time that the fall semester was wrapping up during my junior year, I decided I should start looking at colleges.
                My brother was attending a private university in the Twin Cities.  I decided to take a “college tour” to where my brother was attending.  The silly thing was that my school’s college counselor knew I wasn’t going to visit the college, but as long as I did the college tour and looked at the school she couldn’t do anything.  My birthday conveniently landed close to a weekend that year, so that’s when I decided to go visit. 
                After the college tour was over, and well after I knew that I wasn’t going to attend the college, my brother decided it was time we went out to some parties.  It was a Friday night in the big city, it was time to party. 
                Through some strange sort of coincidence, we managed to hit each party we went to well after everybody had finished all the spirits at the particular venues.  We hopped from place to place, all of which were out of any sort of brew.  We had a good time, don’t get me wrong, but we were more sober than we were anticipating. 
                Now I’ve always been somewhat of a people watcher.  The only thing I ever enjoy in a mall is sitting on the benches and watching the people walk by, watching the people interact with each other, and just trying to see everything that everybody’s too busy to notice.  What I noticed at all of the parties that my brother and I went to were the vast majority of people that were severely intoxicated.  Not only that, but they didn’t seem to be having a good time at all.  That and the people that were passed out on the couches with vomit dripping from their mouths and piles on the floor.  Now I’ve had my fair share of flu bugs, and I can tell you one of the least fun things in this world is throwing up.  But yet it seemed to be a common outcome at all of the parties. 
                Some serious decisions were made after that birthday weekend.  The three hour drive home allowed me to think through the weekend’s events.  The conclusion that I came to from that weekend is that drinking and partying are not worth it.  I made the decision that partying isn’t what I wanted.  It wasn’t worth it.  I had been drunk before, I had been hung-over before, and I decided that I didn’t want that anymore.  I was sick and tired of being sick and tired.
                After the previous summer and my adventures and eventual break-up with Corrine, and then the weekends partying and subsequent decision to stop, I had a lot of time to think.  I stopped going out on weekends, I stopped drinking, and I stopped trying to hook a girlfriend.  I just stopped everything that I thought I was interested in.  It was some sort of funk that came over me and filled me with indifference.  It’s amazing what you can get figured out when you don’t allow the pressures of life to fill your mind. 
                My best friend grew up a block away from me.  His name is Brian.  We were in the same grade and his mom ran an in-home daycare, so he had all the coolest toys.  Growing up we’d spend pretty much every free moment together riding bikes, playing baseball, or starting things on fire.  His dad would take him across the Minnesota/South Dakota border to buy some fireworks that Brian would then sell to me.  We’d spend full days blowing up little green army men and shooting off sparkling fountains in his sandbox.  When his mom was busy with the kids inside and his dad was at work we’d sneak some of the lawnmower’s gas and make the sandbox a flaming hell for those army men.  In larger cities I’m sure the Fire Department would have been called many times over.  But we grew up in a small town that has a volunteer fire department.  It’s not that we were any safer, but people in our town had bigger things to worry about.  Like who was in church on Sunday and who wasn’t at the cafĂ© for coffee last week.
                Brian is the youngest of three boys in his family.  His older brothers are twins so he’d always play the tag-a-long and also the peace maker.  In high school, Brian had dealt with the death of a really close uncle.  Through it all his faith came alive.  Through the turbulence and with an ever vigilantly praying godmother, Brian came through the loss with a new faith and a new outlook on life.  It was a faith that was so palpable that it eventually spread through his whole family and even his friends. 
                When Brian became a Christian, I was still on my drinking/girl binge.  I knew what I wanted and that was to have as much fun as possible.  The girl thing never really worked out for me.  I’d think a girl was cute and try and get to know them only to shy away from ever taking the steps to ask her out.  In one rather embarrassing exchange I had been flirting with a girl for weeks, we sat at the same table in science so it was easy.  Finally I had decided to set a time and place where I was going to ask her out.  There was a basketball game later that evening.  I asked her if she was going to the game.  She said she was.  I told her that I’d talk to her that night and that I had a question to ask her.  When I had told her this I was expecting the bell to ring and be forced to rush out of there before actually asking the question.  Well, as it played out there was more time before the bell than I thought.  She responded, “Well, why don’t you just ask the question now?”
“Because.  Don’t worry, I’ll ask you tonight.  Just be sure to be at the basketball game.”
“What’s the question?”
I was feeling super nervous; my palms were sweating and my hands shaking.  Instead of just manning up and getting it over with, I terrifyingly wrote it on a little scrap of paper, “Will you go out with me?”  I handed it to her.  She opened it up, read it, and chuckled a little.  That little chuckle, as innocent as it might have been, was enough for me to know how childish and uninterested she probably was in me.  She sheepishly asked me, “Really?” And do you know what I did?  Weeks of flirting.  Trying to get this girl to notice me.  Trying to solidify a spot higher than “the nice guy” spot when I finally probably had her on the line.  Do you know what I did?  I said, “No, it’s just a joke.  I’ll see you tonight.”  I ended up not going to the game that night.
                Returning to that January night, lying in bed.  The girl thing didn’t work out for me.  I was way too nervous around them.  The drinking and partying thing didn’t work out.  Its funny how little you enjoy something when throwing up is the goal.  That’s probably why I was never bulimic too.  Add in my best friend’s faith that he wasn’t shy to share.  All that together leads a guy to do some serious thinking.  I have dabbled and tested the things of this world and they all seemed to disappoint.  It was that night and largely because of Brian that I decided to make my faith real.  Don’t get me wrong, I was a church going kid growing up.  My mom and dad had us in church every weekend.  There was no reason aside from sickness or death that would allow us to stay home.  And even sickness was iffy.
                One Sunday morning when I was just old enough to stay home alone I was feeling sick.  It was more than likely just the regular morning yuck, but I was for sure not feeling good.  I told my mom I wasn’t feeling good and she said I could stay home from church.  My family all sang in the choir; so on a normal Sunday morning we’d have to be there at 8:30 for 10am church.  So I stayed home and slept in.  About 9:30 or so I woke up and was feeling quite a bit better.  So I decided that staying in bed would just waste some daylight and decided to get up.  It’s really boring on a Sunday morning when everyone’s at church and there’s nothing but televised church services on the TV.  So I decided that a game or two of football on our Sega Genesis would help pass the time. 
                It’s an amazing thing how things can all work against you when you have the most honest intentions.  I was just trying to pass the time until my family got home so I could tell my mom I was feeling better.  Well it turns out that that particular morning was overly stressful for my mother.  She was the choir director/organist/church secretary and things just didn’t work out for her that morning.  When they got home and she found me playing video games instead of being sick in bed, well let’s just say it was a week of being grounded.
                It wasn’t until that January evening that I had given serious thought to faith and Jesus.  I had gone through the motions like so many before me and so many after.  But that night, lying in bed I knew I wanted something real, something lasting.  What I found was God.  Only after tasting everything that life had to offer me at that time did I finally find something worth holding onto.  And isn’t that just how it is?  It seems to take us years and years to finally acknowledge our faith.  Even those of us that grow up in the church have a hard time believing.  I think it’s almost harder for us that grew up in the church to have a real faith.  It’s all so familiar to us and has never really required anything of us accept being in attendance on Sunday mornings.  But true faith requires more than that.  Real faith requires us to put away the things of the past.  True faith asks us to make Jesus a priority.  True faith invites us into relationship.  I think maybe that’s why so many people are afraid of becoming a Christian.  It has nothing to do with the church that they see; rather it has everything to do with what they don’t want to give up.  In all reality, Jesus doesn’t require us to give up anything.  Generally speaking we don’t forfeit any one thing.  When it comes to girls, I’m married now to Corrine.  When it comes to drinking, some of the best times I’ve had are with my favorite brew with family and friends.  The key is that Jesus asks us to quit trying to find fulfillment in these things.  Quit trying to become complete through these things.  Before, I was trying to find meaning in life by having fun.  When I finally embraced the partying lifestyle I found it didn’t have much to offer. 
                I think this is the true meaning of the gospel and the salvation that comes with it.  I’m not sure if we’ll find complete fulfillment on this side of heaven.  But we can get a glimpse of peace and fulfillment with our relationship with Christ.  This doesn’t mean that if we accept Christ, all things will be fine and dandy.  I think it’s rather the opposite.  When we finally take a stand and say, “Jesus, I know you love me, I know you died for me, please help me learn to love you,” that’s when the enemy will try the hardest to intercede.  The easiest time to uproot a tree is when it’s small and the roots are shallow.  Isn’t it the same with faith?  But it’s the people that we surround ourselves with that are going to make the difference.  No wonder “Love your neighbor” is so important in the Bible.  It wasn’t only by my effort that I was there that January night.  It was because of the people that were praying for me, it was because of Brian, it was because of my parents’ efforts to get me to church.  It was because of these people and many others and a large dose of the power of God that I was in my bed that night contemplating eternity and faith.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

I'm not a writer but I'm trying to be.

So last week I got the crazy idea to try and write a book.  Now I'm not a writer and haven't had more than one grammar class in all of my schooling (although I loved the class, Dr. Johnson was a cool guy).  I've thrown around the idea to various close friends and family and they have all asked the same question, "What's it going to be about?"  And I answer, "Uh...not really sure.  Things in my life and what I've learned from them."  My wife's response was the best, "Why?  Your life's boring!"  Thanks honey, love you too.  The second biggest question I get is, "What's it going to be called?"  Well, I don't know that either.  The working title is, let's just say, What I Learned As a Townie.  Mostly it's going to be a lot like my blog posts, but longer and hopefully more in depth. So if you get bored, I apologize.

So I think I'll post a new chapter every couple of days, or when I get them done...or initially written. Obviously I'm not a writer, so I don't know what all goes into writing a book, but if it sucks, let me know.

So here it goes...

A great author I read quoted some guy that I can’t remember his name said, “A writer needs to write every day.”  Well, this is my attempt at growing into being a writer.  This is going to be my everyday trials and struggles with life, faith, and family.  I don’t claim to be a writer at all.  I just hope that sometime in the future, the words that I write down have some sort of lasting effect on somebody.   Maybe that person will be me, maybe it’ll be my kids that read it, and maybe someone will stumble along these words with their poor grammar and think it’s important that the masses read them.  Then I’ll sleep on money bags and drink mimosas every morning while I watch my cleaning lady sweep off my patio made of gold.  One can only hope.  So where do I start?  Where does a non-writer start his story?  I guess I’ll have to start at the beginning.

Chapter 1: The Beginning.

I’ve always had a pretty strong conscience.  As far back as I can remember I’ve known right from wrong.  Now that doesn’t mean that I’ve always been able to act the right way.  I’ve done my fair share of stupid things. 
There was the time when I was no more than five.  It was summer time, my older brother JJ, our friend Ellen from down the road and I were in our living room playing.  To be better stated I could probably say that JJ and Ellen were playing and I was tagging along.  It was a common theme growing up.  Being a “townie” in town of 700 doesn’t leave many friends that are your same age.  My class was full of “farmies” that lived outside of town and way more fun shooting guns, riding three-wheelers, and doing things the city cop would tell your parents about.
So I was tagging along with JJ and Ellen.  We were probably watching Nickelodeon or playing Lego’s or something.  My mom, at the time, was a stay at home mom.  She had asked us to do some small chore.  Now I love my mom, I’ve always been a sort of momma’s boy.  And somewhere along the lines of my short life I’d probably seen people worshipping someone (maybe in an Indiana Jones movie).  I apparently thought that my mom was well worth the worship.  She was great, she was my hero, she made the best mac and cheese, and no one could tuck me in quite like her.  So here’s how it all played out.
My mom asked, “Can you guys take the clothes hamper and go take the clothes off the clothes line?”
                JJ, “Aw, do we have to?”
                Mom, “Yes, now go do it before I make you do the dishes too!”
                Me, kneeling down prostrate to my mother, bending at the waist with arms reaching towards the ceiling, bowing over and over again.  “Yes Mom!  We will!  We WILL!”
                Mom, “YOU GO TO YOUR ROOM!  YOU’RE GROUNDED!”
                Me, “But Mom, I’m serious, I didn’t mean…I’m sorry…I was…”  Grounded.
As you can see, not the smartest move in the book.  I was sure I loved my mom.  And I was sure that I was going to go out and take the clothes off the line.  But I just missed the mark in complying with my mom’s request.  Needless to say, I didn’t prostrate myself before her ever again. 
                This wasn’t the last time I’d make an idiot in front of my mom.  Just to be clear, my mom’s a saint.  She’s always had her priorities revolving around our family.  She worked hard corralling me and my two brothers into adulthood.  She was a stay-at-home mom until I was eight or so, then she went to work at the bank.  It was different not having my mom home after school.  We had to find our own snacks and entertain ourselves (maybe better stated as I had to entertain JJ because I could always find something to do on my own, JJ couldn’t).  Which pretty much led to us eating too many Doritos and watching too much TV.  But it was only a couple of years of that before we were into Junior High where after school sports and activities kept us busy until five thirty.
I remember when my mom went to work at the bank.  It was a big deal.  She had worked in a couple banks when JJ and I were younger.  I distinctly remember thinking that my mom was the most important person at the bank.  I’d go up there after school got out, take a mouthful of free gumballs, and sit in awe of my mom, the banker.  We never had a ton of money, but my mom worked at the bank and therefore we might as well have been the kings of the town.  And then when the new bank was built and my mom got her own desk, what’s more kingly than a king?  I don’t know, but that’s how I looked at it.  I’d throw it around the playground like I was bragging about how strong my dad was.  “Oh yeah? Well my mom works at the BANK!”
But my mom wasn’t invincible.  I remember when we got the call about Grandpa Raymond, her father.  It was late one night.  Bryce was still an infant.  My dad was off at some school meeting.  It was dark out and we were upstairs getting ready for bed. 
The phone rang and I ran to pick up the receiver.  It was always sort of exciting answering the phone.  It was hardly ever for me, and at this time of the day it was never for me.  But I still rushed to pick up the phone.  I answered with all the pep a young seven year old could, “Hello?”
                “Is this Kyle?”
                “Is your mother home?”
                “Yeah, hold on a second…MOOOOOOOM!  Phone’s for you!”
My mom came into the room and grabbed the phone.  She too was a little confused as to the call, this late at night.  She quietly answered the phone, “Hello?”
Instantly I could see her body fall.  Not literally, but figuratively, where it seems as the life is slowly draining out of a person and the body shakes as if to keep itself upright.  Her head slouched down as if to brace for the impact.  She finished the call and slowly hung up the phone.  I knew something bad had happened.  I knew something wasn’t wrong.  I knew that my indestructible mom was now at her weakest moment.  She turned to face me and my brothers, her eyes all welled up, tears streaming down her face.  And yet, even in this moment of absolute, utter weakness, she was still a rock.  She calmly asked me and my brothers to go downstairs to the living room; she had something to tell us. 

We all grabbed a spot on the couch, my mom sat across from us on the chair.  She sat crying, but through her tears she was still able to lay the news on us, “Boys, it’s about Grandpa Raymond.  He passed away tonight…”  That was as far as she got before the pain made her swallow her words.  We sat for moments that seemed like an eternity.   We were young boys; we didn’t fully grasp the gravity of the situation.  But we knew that our mom was hurting, and the only thing we could do was cuddle in close and let her squeeze.  It’s amazing the amount of security and peace you feel in your darkest time when there are people you love that are there to hold tight. 
My mom held us close until my dad came home from his meeting.  She let us go and told my dad what had happened.  My dad hugged and kissed my mom and comforted her through the pain.  A short while later he put us in bed.  It was the most silent night I remember growing up.  The mood was so somber and sad one can only tolerate it so many times through their lifetime.   This was the first for me, an unforgettable moment for sure.
I don’t remember a lot about Grandpa Raymond.  I was young.  What I do remember is that he always had a smile on his face and always cared about you.  And he could blow O’s with his cigar smoke.  We’d always ask him to do it. 
We went to his funeral later that week.  He and my grandma weren’t church going people.  He was Protestant and married a Catholic woman and his family had somewhat outcast him because of it.  He was scarred by the church and the hypocrisy within.  So his funeral was in a funeral home and not a church.  Sure I was young, but I remember it vividly.  The funeral was quiet and somber during the ceremony.  I remember being sad, but I didn’t cry.  I remember looking down the pew and seeing my cousin crying as if someone was cutting his leg off.  He is four or five years older than I.  That’s an extra four or five years of memories with my grandpa.  His family also lived closer to my grandpa and grandma, so I’m sure they saw them more and had a closer relationship.  But I remember not crying and trying to cry, and then trying to figure out why it was I didn’t feel the need to cry.  For some reason the quiet, sad funeral didn’t seem real.  It didn’t seem right for my family.  It seemed like this was something out of the norm, it seemed like it wasn’t MY family here being quiet and sad.  My family doesn’t do that. 
Then there came the reception.  All the tears had been cried that needed to be cried and my family, the Raymond’s, woke up again.  Sure everybody was sad; my grandpa was a good man.  He loved people without ceasing.  He loved people because they were people.  His co-workers loved him, his family loved him, and I loved him.  And now he was gone and our memories are what we have of him. 
                My first lesson in loving your neighbor came from him.  Years after the fact, when theology and faith issues became important to me I would look back on this event in my life.  It is the first major memory for me.  It’s been twenty years since he passed and this lesson is still at the core of my faith.  Love without ceasing, love your neighbor.  He taught me (unbeknownst to me) at a very young age that it doesn’t matter who it is, they deserve your love.  Isn’t this the core of who we are as Christians?  As my Bible reads, it’s number two in the two most important things in the Bible.  First there’s love your God, next is love your neighbor. 
The bigger lesson that he’s taught me is to love no matter what.  Like I said before, his family kept him at an arm’s distance because he married a Catholic woman.  It’s a concept that seems so foreign to us in our society.  Marrying or not based on denominational ties?  And then if one would go against those social stigmas, social and familial casting out?  Really?  But yet through all of this, Grandpa Raymond still loved.  There are many today that would blame their upbringing and family life for their current situation.  There are many that would say that they were never taught how to love, therefore how should anyone expect them to love?  Well, Grandpa Raymond proved that moving beyond your life scars is possible.  Not just moving beyond them, but being a better person because of them.  He proved to me that no matter how crappy someone’s life can be, there’s always something better coming.  Call me a silly optimist if you want, but isn’t it true that when we dwell on the garbage of our lives, it consumes us?  So what if we don’t dwell on it anymore?  What Grandpa Raymond taught me was that no matter what life lays in front of us, there is a right way to deal with, get through, and get passed it, and there’s a wrong way.  He found that right way.  I’m sure he had a hard time dealing with the separation from his mom, dad, and siblings.  But that only made him embrace his own family even more. 
                Isn’t this what Paul is talking about in Romans? 
And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose (Romans 8:28)
I’m not sure if God called my grandpa to familial separation because of some silly denominational discrimination.  But what I do know is that because his relationship with his parents and siblings was fractured, he was not going to let his family be the same. 
                Back to the funeral, I still wonder why I didn’t feel like crying.  I can’t tell you why my cousin was torn at the seams bawling and I couldn’t muster up the tiniest tear.  I remember trying to cry, trying to get myself to shed some sort of outward, physical sign of the inward sorrow I was feeling.  But I just couldn’t.  For a time I thought that I was incapable of crying, I’d hold it back and swallow it.  I felt guilty for a long time because I couldn’t cry at Grandpa Raymond’s funeral.  But I wonder if he’d want anybody to cry at his funeral.  Sure, funerals are sad, but what are we crying about?  Aren’t we really crying because we don’t have them anymore?  I know it sounds cold, and at age seven I could not have put this together; but I think we’re sad at funerals for slightly selfish reasons.  When in all reality we should celebrate the life that was lived and the continued life they’re living. 
I think this is really what Grandpa Raymond would have wanted.  He would have wanted to come together as a family and rejoice in life.  He would have wanted us to continue loving as he had showed us.  If there’s a better example of love, outside of the Bible, I haven’t seen one.  Sure there’s a time for sorrow and mourning.  But I think Grandpa Raymond would have wanted it to be a very short time, followed by a feast.  Or maybe not, he was a picky eater.  If he wanted a feast in his honor, he would eat beforehand and then take a half bowl of soup at the banquet.  Then he’d sit and tell stories, making people laugh, all the while swirling his soup so it seemed like he was actually eating it.  He’d do this and no one would care, but everyone would have a great time.  It’d be a joyous feast, like the ones we read about in the Bible and old stories like Beowulf.  Everyone would come, be stuffed to the brim, laugh, share stories, and have a great time.  This would be the banquet that Grandpa Raymond would want.  It’s pretty close to how it was at the reception.  Only my grandpa wasn’t there telling the stories.  Everyone else was there to tell stories.  Stories about how, “Grandpa Raymond did this,”  “He helped there,” and, “I can’t believe that he was able to pull off that.”
I’m not sure where Grandpa Raymond sat with God.  I know he loved people like few in this world do.  I know that he went to the Catholic Church with my grandma but never became a Catholic.  I know that there were a lot of tears shed at his funeral.  I know that he was a good man.  I do hope that when I finally get up to the pearly gates that Grandpa Raymond is up there, smoking a big cigar blowing O’s in the smoke.  In fact I wouldn’t be surprised if when I get to heaven, Grandpa Raymond is there with a cigar, telling stories and playing cards with Saint Peter.  Saint Peter would be about busting at his seams and distracted enough for my grandpa to not so subtly table talk with Jesus. 
But I won’t know this for some time now.  What I do know now is that Grandpa Raymond would want me to love without ceasing.  Keep friends close, keep family closer.  It’s the family that’s going to be there for you in the long run.  Sure we’ll have disagreements, but we’re family, we have to be able to look past the troubles.  My mom has never held any of my missteps against me.  It’s not in her blood to keep grudges.  I’ve said some really stupid things to her, all of which I still feel guilty about when I think back on them.  But I think she also learned the same lessons from my grandparents.  When we got the news about Grandpa Raymond, all she wanted to do was to bring us close and hold us tight.  I think maybe that the through the time that she held us tight, she was physically remembering the lessons of Grandpa Raymond.  She lost her father, a good man, but she still had us.  She would hold on tight to us through our upbringing.  Even now that my brothers and I have families of our own, she still hugs tighter than anyone else.  My wife and her may hug with the same tightness, but you’d need scientific instruments to tell for sure and I don’t have the money or know-how to figure something like that out.
So what’s the lesson of this beginning chapter?  Love without ceasing, love your neighbor, and always hold on to your family.