Archive for July, 2013

Background: Wrestling with Faith

Posted in Background with tags , , , on July 5, 2013 by timtrue
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.

Background: Coming to Jesus

Posted in Background with tags , , , on July 4, 2013 by timtrue
Ski to live; live to ski.  That was my motto in 1985.  I'm the guy on the top left.

Ski to live; live to ski. That was my motto in 1985. I’m the guy on the top left.

While these and similar thoughts and questions were going on, my brother started going to a Bible study before school on Wednesday mornings.  “If you want a ride to school,” he announced, “you’ll have to come early with me.”

“That’s cool,” I said.

I’d gotten my driver’s license during the previous summer.  But the vehicle I had been delegated was a 1968 Dodge Sportsman van, the same one we’d travelled Mexico in more than a decade before in fact (see “Background: Idyllic Childhood”), and for some reason she was presently out of commission.  So we carpooled for the time being in Brother’s vehicle of delegation, a 1972 Ford Pinto.

But was it really cool?  What was a Bible study anyway?  I had a hard enough time studying the topics thrown at me in school every week.  Why would I want to read or study something else, leaving me less time to spend outside?  Still, those questions that none of my friends wanted to deal with and that school didn’t seem to address, could there be a place for them here?  It’d be worth a shot.  Besides, the guy leading it was in a band—33AD or something like that—so he at least was probably cool.  And there’d be free food.

So I went.  And it seemed okay.

So I went again the next week.  And I heard some passionate words written by some guy whose name had been Saul but was now Paul.  He was somehow convinced that neither death nor life nor angels nor principalities nor powers nor height nor depth nor any other created thing could separate him from God’s love in Jesus Christ.  And I caught myself longing for something similar—oh, that kind of love, to be sure, if such love were possible; but even more so that conviction!  I wanted to believe in something that passionately.  But family, friends, things, places?  I could get excited about a few activities, like snow skiing and motorcycling.  But to put a sort of faith in these?  That seemed senseless to me.  As for everything else—family and friends: people, really—I felt apathetic at best, perhaps even indifferent towards some (no love, no hatred, no feeling whatever).

As for what this guy Paul wrote of: love—and as for whom: God—it all seemed more far out to me than any of my questions.  I mean, really, could there be a supreme being that created all things?  And if there were such a being, how could he (or she, or it) have some sort of personal dealings with this guy Paul?  How could God love a person?  Wouldn’t that be like me loving an ant?  And even if that were true, that God had some sort of personal interaction with Paul, he was an important person in the history of the world, a person whose writings ended up comprising a good chunk of the New Testament.  But who was I in comparison, a high school junior in some bedroom community in southern California in the 1980s?  At best I blended in, was just a social security number on a sheet of fifteen hundred others; at worst I might have to visit the Principal’s office, singled out because of a fight with another SSN over a stolen matchbox.  What would God want to do with me personally?

Nevertheless, the Bible study leader worked for an organization called Youth for Christ; and on this particular year Youth for Christ, which happened also to host Bible studies for high school students at several locations across Ventura County, was planning a ski trip to Park City, Utah, a premiere ski vacation destination for a fifteen year-old who’d never skied outside of California, let alone anyone else.

So, what now?  New friends?  Adventure?  I became a Bible study regular, whether (now that the van was running again) my brother went or not.

Week after week I attended then, enjoying breakfast tacos and orange juice, hearing the Good News about Jesus (he saved me, you know) and the bad news about myself (I needed saving from my inherent inescapable sinfulness, you know), but most of all not wanting to miss any announcement, fundraising opportunity, or other Park City Ski Trip detail.

I even worked for three months at Taco Bell in order to save enough money for the trip.  The sad part is I had to quit this my first job in order to go on the trip—no accrued vacation time to speak of by the end of three months—and for whatever reason I didn’t get hired back on upon my return.  That’s okay though, because the local bowling alley hired me.

At last the trip came, Spring Break, 1985.  By day I was a complete fool, drunk with the moment—this was my own bought-and-paid-for adventure after all—using no sunscreen whatever and attempting the biggest air I could find, convinced I could do what those stunters could in the latest Warren Miller flick.  I rarely pulled off a landing, by the way, but I’m not convinced the Warren Miller stunters did it often either.  But by night I was sober, sore from the day’s intense sun and activities but also riveted by the so-called Four Spiritual Laws, a simplistic four-part breakdown of Jesus’s person and purpose.

At the end of the week I answered an Altar Call, repeating a prayer to “accept Jesus into my heart.”  Then I wrote my name and phone number down on a blue index card and watched as an adult leader filed it into a black plastic box made just to hold index cards, whatever the color.  Then, “Join us for the party!” someone said.  And another, an adult, said, “The angels party in heaven over one soul saved, so we’re gonna party here too.”

I don’t know what that earthly party consisted of (nor the heavenly one, come to think of it).  Perhaps there was pizza and sparkling apple juice.  This was a high school youth trip, after all.  But I don’t know because I said no thanks and went outside for a walk.  Could I really have such a love-focused relationship with Almighty God, as so many people all around me were now telling me?  If so, Christianity couldn’t really be this easy, this clearly defined, this black and white, could it?  Why was everyone being so glib?

Monthly Reflection: June, 2013

Posted in Reflection on July 2, 2013 by timtrue

It’s hard to believe that only a month ago we were dealing with a broken down moving truck in Jackson, MS.  Yeah!  The Penske mechanics apparently didn’t give our truck a very thorough checkover before renting it to us.  And to think, I could have sat back and watched a professional moving company labor and strain in the comfort of my own lemonade-equipped armchair.  The church was paying for the move.  But when I saw that the quote would cost the church more than $15K, out of the goodness of my heart I offered to move the household goods myself, all of them except the piano, so long as I would get reimbursed.  It saved the church more than $12K in the end, or more than two years of tithes on my end if I were to look at it that way.  Hmm.  But sitting there in 100-degree Mississippi mugginess, I had to ask myself whether it had been worth it.  Penske had the sense to hire a moving crew to transfer the load, after they had determined that the truck was indeed too broken down to be considered road worthy—a half-day determination, mind you—but apparently I had packed the truck so well that the professional moving crew couldn’t duplicate it: the load wouldn’t fit into the new albeit identically sized truck.  In the end the rest of the family, including the dog, moseyed on ahead while Daughter Em and I stayed behind, deciding to take in a new movie while we waited, After Earth, in an air-conditioned theater, complemented by ICEEs.  Good flick, by the way, thank you very much Will Smith.  Got us thinking a bit about the concept of fear.  Perhaps it was the one redeeming quality of this fiasco that now feels so long ago.

Otherwise the settling in went roughly as anticipated.  There are always countless chores to be done—setting up utilities, transferring driver’s licenses, registering cars, more trips to Home Depot than should be legal—and always too much money spent.  A good plan we’d made back in the spring was to attend a family camp at the beach June 6-9.  This meant putting our work of unpacking aside for a time, forcing ourselves to take a bit of a break.  It was good not only for improving our surfing and sand-castle building skills but also because it was the closest thing to resembling a family vacation for us this summer.

A week and a haircut and a beard trim later I began as Curate.  The timing of my start coincided with VBS week, which if you don’t know means the busiest week of a church’s summer.  We saw nearly two hundred kids each day from 8:45 to noon; and in my case it meant acting in a skit each morning, something I didn’t sign on to in my job description.  By the end of the week, whether I had wanted to or not, I’d gotten to know many people.  Otherwise during the first week I served in the Sunday services, preached at a Thursday morning Eucharist, and served at a funeral on Friday afternoon.

And, oh yeah, I crashed my motorcycle.  No need to rehash this event in detail, for I blogged about it in “Still an Enthusiast.”  My last motorcycle crash was in 1992.

Do you ever wonder what kind of first impression you make on someone?  People who study this kind of thing tell us that self-perception is highly inaccurate.  But with my acting, serving, meeting, processing, and motorcycle-crashing, I have no idea where even to begin.

As for my first impression of the parish?  This week I made a major flub.  When reading the Gospel in the main Sunday service out of the Gospel Book, where the Gospel readings appear in weekly order according to the Revised Common Lectionary, as I got a few sentences into it I felt some funny looks on me.  Another few sentences with an increasing feeling of funny looks upon me I decided to glance at the rubric above the reading.  “To be read on the Sunday closest to July 6,” it read.  But today is June 30, I realized, so I’m halfway through the wrong Gospel passage!  What to do?  The preacher was preaching on another reading, I knew.  So as gracefully as I could I ended the sentence and paused.  Then, “I’m sorry,” I announced to the three hundred faces looking at me, “I’m in the wrong Gospel.”  The hall burst into laughter.  But it wasn’t a condescending laughter, or patronizing.  It struck me rather as sympathetic.  Conversations following the service confirmed my impression.

As a whole then I feel like the people here have got my back.  It’s a curacy, meaning to them that it’s my first position in ministry.  Never mind my prior experience as a Youth Director or civil engineer or teacher or choir director or Latin professor.  Never mind my lifelong pursuits in writing and composing.  Oh, these are all cool talents and skills to the parish, sure, things that might come in handy now and again.  But my point here is a certain freshness.  I’m coming in as a blank slate: no history, no reputation.  The parishioners are therefore very sympathetic, desiring my success, feeling like they’ve got a project in their hands, to raise me up and send me out to do great things in Christ’s name with their stamp of approval upon me.  Frankly, it’s a nice place to be.  But I know ministry won’t always feel like this.

The second week proved much slower.  But a pattern is developing.  Sundays are full, services and interaction with parishioners all day long.  Mondays are my day off, meaning a day to take care of household chores and attempts made at not coming into the office—not always successfully.  Tuesdays are meetings all morning, and so far afternoons spent organizing my schedule and week and taking care of whatever business I can from the morning meetings.  Wednesdays through Fridays then feel like the only opportunity for real productivity–prayer, study, writing.  Of course interweaved through it all are visitations, counseling opportunities, other meetings, and so on.  But I need to change my mindset here, to see time spent with others as productive time too.  It might take some weeks . . . or months . . . or years . . . or . . .

And then there are Saturdays, which strike me as very similar to Mondays.  I am grateful to live within a few miles of my office.

Looking ahead, my ordination to the priesthood will be on Sunday and I will celebrate Eucharists on the Thursday and Sunday following and begin preaching regularly, meaning two Sundays out of every three and at various midweek services.  Other responsibilities include coordinating the daily school chapel services, to begin in August; and to be the first line of defense, so to speak, against those who come knocking on the church’s doors seeking help in the form of money.  Otherwise my rector (and mentor) intends to give me a big-picture understanding of the ins and outs of managing and leading a large parish over the next two-plus years.