Background: Wrestling with Faith

Chilling with a Youth for Christ Bible study, 1986?  I'm second from right, back row.

Chilling with a Youth for Christ Bible study, 1986? I’m second from right, back row.

I wanted to believe the story.  I really did.  God had created humanity upright.  But humanity fell, demonstrated in the story of Adam and Eve.  Redemption could only come through the death of someone or something upright, meaning a Person without fallenness.  This Person could only be, therefore, the Son of the Most High God, Jesus Christ, for he had come down from heaven, was born of the virgin Mary, and became man, begotten not made; and only such an existence could be upright.  All that remained was for me to put my trust in him personally, to accept that he did this for me in order that God might see me as he sees Christ, sinless, upright, spotless and pure, and therefore become one of God’s own children.  Had I accepted this as truth when I asked Jesus to come into my heart at the Youth for Christ ski trip?  Had I trusted in Jesus as my personal Redeemer?

Questions surfaced.  The Gospel story was awesome.  Like I said already, I wanted to believe it.  But something inside me tugged.

When I was younger, maybe seven years old, my brother came into the room we shared and said, “Come with me.  I want to show you something.”

I was still groggy with sleep.  I heard Dad in the kitchen, preoccupied with his Saturday morning ritual of cooking pancakes: from the sound of the pan and mixing bowl clanking together he was just starting.  Breakfast would be ready in maybe half an hour.

“Where’s Mom?” I asked.

“Playing tennis.”

What was my brother up to, I wondered?

Some few minutes later he’d led me to a door in the ceiling of a hall closet, a door to the attic, a door I had only ever seen, never been through.  He’d already stationed a barstool inside the closet, which I then watched him climb up and from his perch propel himself onto a shelf from which–clever, I thought–he easily entered the overhead door.  I followed his lead.

A few moments later I found myself in our house’s attic, a new experience for me, with my leader and guide, a brother obviously experienced with this kind of thing, ready for some adventure into some world unknown.  What did Andy have up his sleeve?

That’s when I became suddenly aware of our surroundings.  All around, stacked two or three high in a dimly lit circle of red and green, wrapped presents quietly stared at us.  I looked at Andy uncertainly.  His grin was sinister.

Andy showed me only one gift that morning, an Atari video game console.  With a pocketknife he carefully cut through the piece of scotch tape holding the wrapping paper in place.  Somehow he managed deftly to pull the box out and open it and show me the contents inside then put it all back together, including securing the wrapping paper with a single small piece of scotch tape to cover and disguise the pocket-knife cut without leaving any other discernible marks, at least as far as I could make out.  By then it all was something of a blur: my eyes–unknown to Andy–were welling up with tears.

I said something dumb like “Cool!” and quickly descended our makeshift staircase and headed back to my bed to bury my face in my pillow in private where I’d have time before breakfast to recover and my shock and sadness might not be detected.  But Andy followed me.

“Don’t you want to see what else is up there?” he asked.  “Why’d you leave?”

“The label,” I sniffed.

“What about it?”

“It said, ‘Merry Christmas!  Love, Santa.'”

“Yeah, so?”

“So, Santa really isn’t real.”

“Of course he’s not real!”

Yeah.  Unreal.  The gig was finally up for me that sad morning.  I’d always believed the Santa Claus story till then.  I’d always trusted that my parents were telling me the truth, even when the occasional questions surfaced about time zones and flying reindeer and how an out-of-shape old man could accomplish so much in one short night.  But here, Andy’s sneaking demonstration of superior, older brother wisdom–this was too much!  This was evidence irrefutable.

So now, as a young man processing the Gospel story in earnest for the first time, memories of the Santa sham plagued my mind.  Some people were telling me that that Jesus was born of a virgin, that the Bible said so.  But what if it were just a story, a custom, like all parents everywhere telling their kids about Santa?  Yeah, there is the Bible, a book seemingly all about the Christ, fully man and fully God, incarnated in Jesus; but there are books and books about Santa, Saint Nicholas, and Kris Kringle too–not to mention songs and giftshop curios, just like with Jesus.

“That’s where you gotta have faith,” my Bible study leader answered.  Then I’m sure I heard him say quietly, “You ask a lot of questions.”  Whether he meant this to be heard or not I didn’t bother to ask.

Another photo from this time period.  I'm second from left.

Another photo from this time period. I’m second from left.

Well, I never did get a satisfactory answer to my Jesus-as-a-sophisticated-Santa-story question, but I began to see that the Bible contained a lot of practical wisdom, a lot of answers to other questions I was dealing with at the time.  I became especially enamored with the book of Proverbs.  I read maxims like (I’m going from memory here, and it’s been a while, so I make no claims to accuracy here): “As a door turns on its hinges so the lazy man turns on his bed”; “A man’s face falls into his bowl of stew yet he is too lazy to lift it”; and, “Consider the ant, you sluggard.”  Of course, these lazy-bones prohibitions resonated with a teenager who observed friends gathering unproductively and frequently just to “hang out.”  Redeeming the time, being punctual, giving one’s word and sticking to it–these were largely foreign concepts to the teenage crowd around me; and I soon observed that if I abided by these things grownups liked it.  And that meant getting the jobs I wanted and supporting the lifestyle I was living, meaning affording a car to get me to the beaches and mountains on my days off and having enough spending cash left over for a burrito and horchata.  Living simply nevertheless necessitated car ownership.

I learned also at this time to be flexible.  Another proverb says, “In his heart a man plans his course, but the LORD directs his steps.”  Paired with New Testament passages that say things like, “And we know that in all things God works for the good of the who love him,” I found it easier to face painful times–like when your older brother spoils your Christmas fantasies!

Too, I developed a whole network of new friends, good friends who like me were trying to live upstanding lives and interacted with the grownup world in ways I before had been intimidated by.  And I found myself enjoying this newfound interaction (see above about getting the job I wanted and living simply).

So I tried to ignore or set aside or suppress those questions about whether Christianity was one of the greatest shams in the history of the world.

This shot pretty much sums up everything.

This shot pretty much sums up everything.

At the same time, about to graduate from high school, I realized I had no plan for college.  But I had always assumed I’d go to college.  It was one of those non-negotiables in my mind, like church has been for my kids as they’ve grown up.  On Sundays we wake up and go to church.  No questions asked.  It’s always been so; and always will be.  At least that’s how they think of it.  Anyway, I had to develop a college plan, and quickly.

So I enrolled in a local community college, fall, 1986.  This allowed me to stay local, to continue working at the flower shop as a delivery boy (driving around the Thousand Oaks area in my 1970 Triumph TR6, looking oh so cool and collecting the occasional big tip), and to continue working as a volunteer with Ventura County Youth for Christ, where I was now leading a Bible study with kids from a rougher part of Oxnard.  Still, I had no idea what to declare as a major.

I like to backpack, I thought.  I also sympathize more with the tree huggers than the loggers, I told myself.  So why not study forestry?  Which is the first major I declared.  But calculus was a bear.  And the work I was doing, both for pay and volunteering, was far more enjoyable.  Was I even sure I wanted to go to college right now after all?  I could move to Mammoth for a couple years, decide what I want to study, then come back, yeah?

While these thoughts revolved in my mind, the first semester came and went.  And I failed calculus.

Second semester meant a break in math, but I continued my college education otherwise.  General education seemed a good idea, especially since now I was even less sure I wanted to major in forestry, so I took photography, music appreciation, chemistry, and physics, and continued to work at the flower shop and with the barrio kids in Oxnard.

And to distract my wanderlust for the time being, I, on a whim, applied to work at a camp in the Sierras for the summer.  A month later, despite my long hair, laidback attitude, and getting lost on the way to the interview at Azusa Pacific University, resulting in my arriving more than half an hour late, the camp director, on a whim himself I found out later, decided to hire me as a dishwasher.

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3 Responses to “Background: Wrestling with Faith”

  1. Not a TR-6 as well! I owned one and I’m trying to buy another one now…hahaha! This is pretty funny. Do you remember Roger Cross? I really liked the guy…btw, I can relate very well to your journey

    • I only ever met Roger once, in a church in Denver, probably in 1994. We talked shop briefly, but that was it.

      On another topic, do you have a garage with any spare room in it? I’d love to build a scrambler in my spare time.

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