Tuesday, December 30, 2008

I am not the Queen of the Universe

Does that depress you as much as it depresses me?

Right.

So I'm the only one who thinks I should be the Queen of the Universe.

Can I just ask why I wasn't included when they started taking applications? And who are "they" anyway? And do "they" really know who is suitable to be Queen of the Universe?

I think not.

Otherwise, I would be the Queen of the Universe.

Which means I would get everything I wanted, right?

But would that make me have responsibilities and stuff?

Maybe I'll have to think about this Queen of the Universe thing, just in case "they" finally get around to nominating me.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Meaning

I've been trying to think of something to blog since Christmas and am coming up flat. Ugh. For a writer, I feel like a failure. The idea pool is dried up. I just can't think of anything meaningful to share with anyone.

At the moment, I'm pretty ashamed of the fact that I've made no progress on anything of significance over the past few days. Well, except for the fact that my house is clean, which was only accomplished by screaming like a shrew at everyone in the house and having to sit and cry in my bedroom because I felt so sorry for myself at having to live with such pigs. Charming, I know. But that's my winning personality.

Mostly, though, I've done nothing. Tried to knit a few times, but am really irritated at the fact that I can't make this one stitch look right, so I've knitted and torn out this piece about fifty times. And no, that's not an exaggeration, it's a sign of what an obsessive perfectionist I am. Which is why, if I decide to make something for someone, I'll tell them when I give it to them, and not before, so they don't expect it anytime soon. At this rate, I'll have the scarf I'm knitting done sometime before the second coming.

I've also brewed a few pots of tea in my new teapot. LOVE it, except I've realized that I need a tea cozy to keep it warm. Which means I need to drastically improve my knitting skills, because the patterns are a little more complicated than I have ability for.

I've written a couple of workshop proposals, put together some marketing and planning stuff for work, played a little Crackrat (which is so irritating with the tickets and XL garbage), walked the dog (twice!), taught a tax class (and let's not go into what a total snafu that was, thanks to the tech team forgetting that I still have another two weeks of class), tried to research why my little one has such bad eczema all of a sudden, brought yummies to the neighbors, stressed over the paperwork nightmare I still have to sort, thought about putting things together to refinance the house, and sat very firmly on my backside, making the Danica's butt shaped impression in the couch even more noticeable.

And in it, I have absolutely no satisfaction, because when it all comes down to it, none of it matters. This time next year, when I'm sitting in my even more butt-shaped spot on the couch, will I even remember any of this junk? Will anyone? And no, this isn't some, oh I'm so depressed thing. It's not that I'm depressed. I just wish I could be doing something more valuable right now.

This afternoon, I laid on on the couch with the girlies watching a My Little Pony movie. Riveting stuff. I pondered my whole "why aren't I doing something more meaningful" dilemma. I napped for a bit, until the little one woke me up, saying, "Mom! You're supposed to be watching with us, not sleeping." And as I stood corrected, I realized that right now, the most meaningful thing I need to be doing is sitting right here, watching this cheesy movie, and letting my little girls know that I am fully present in their lives.

When I was a little girl, the thing I wanted most was to have a mom and dad who were active in my life. They were there, sure, but I don't ever remember doing anything with my mom. She was always too busy. My dad lived on the other side of the country, so my time with him was limited. All I wanted was to be known and loved by them.

And so here I am, looking at my two little girls, mad because I haven't done anything of significance lately, and I realized that I've done some of the most meaningful things anyone can do with a person. During my knitting nightmare, the little one sat on my lap with her own needles and yarn, trying to make the mother of all baby blankets for her dollies. She saw me try, fail, and try again. We shared some of my special tea. I gave her a bath with oatmeal in it, hoping to ease the eczema (didn't work), and then, because her new Barbies had to have a bath with her, helped her clean all the oatmeal out of their hair. I made curlies in her hair, which meant we had dinner a little later than I'd planned, but it made her feel so pretty. I listened to the girls talk at dinner about the animal games they'd made up. I wore the ugly and extremely itchy bead necklace my little one made out of pipe cleaners and plastic beads because she thought it would make me a beautiful mommy princess.

What is the meaning of what I do? What am I accomplishing?

I used to have grand dreams of all the great things I was going to do. Sometimes I get frustrated because I'm not doing any of it. Occasionally, the voice of the college administrator rings in the back of my head as I hear her condescendingly tell me that I'm wasting my education.

But as I look at the little girl sleeping next to me, all of those voices stop making me so crazy. What does it matter if I save the world only to lose the most precious thing on earth?

I heard someone say somewhere that your calling is to do the thing that God has put into your life at that moment to the very best of your ability. Right now, God has put a couple of little girls in my life. He made me to be their mommy. I was created to be their mom. I keep saying that with a high level of awe, because really, it's about the most awesome thing I can think of. A very clear something that God has said, "here, do this."

And maybe, despite my earlier lamentations about having nothing meaningful to share, I've just shared the most meaningful thing God has shown me in a long time.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Merry Christmas!

With one hour and four minutes left to the holiday, I feel like I can still make this post to wish all my blog friends a very Merry Christmas.

This year, our family had one of the best Christmases ever.

Absolutely nothing special happened.

Which is why I think it was the best.

Christmas Eve, we stayed home and had a simple and quiet candlelit dinner. I made potted beef, which is a traditional meal my Italian grandmother used to make for Christmas. I can't confirm it's an actual Italian dish, and in fact, can't find a recipe that matches what we make, so I have no idea what it would be called. Still, it was really wonderful to enjoy a family tradition from my side of the family. Then, we read the Christmas story from the Bible and had communion for the first time as a family. It was really wonderful. My eight year old loved it and the four year old sang Christmas carols about Jesus being on fire. But that's pretty typical for our family and I think that was part of the charm.

Then, we let the girls open one gift each, and they both ended up pulling out gifts they loved. We were bratty to the 8 year old and had wrapped a stuffed dragon with the tail sticking out of the box, and it was fun messing with them over the present.

After the girls played with the new toys, they went to bed and I worked on cleaning the rest of the house. This was the first Christmas I can remember where I wasn't up until midnight wrapping gifts. Number one because we bought less, number two because we weren't traveling (wrapped gifts take up more space), and number three because I've been doing more wrapping as I go. Believe it or not, cleaning house was really relaxing for me... it felt really good to do something nice for myself. And to realize that I was going to wake up in the morning and do nothing more than enjoy our time as a family. I even pre-prepped breakfast so all I'd have to do is pop it into the oven.

Oddly enough, I couldn't sleep Christmas Eve. Partially because I was so excited to see the kids and how they'd react to their gifts. Mostly because I drank half a Dr. Pepper and caffeine at night is never a good idea for me.

The kiddos got up before the sun. Those of you who know me well know this, in my opinion, is worse than Chinese water torture. But I got up anyway, and it was super cool to see how much they loved their presents. We took our time, savoring the unwrapping of the gifts. We really hadn't spent all that much money... most of the gifts were super on sale or secondhand. I buy throughout the year, so I'd gotten most of my shopping done early. But the girls loved them and thought they were the best ever. Love that!

I did get a nap in, talked to the out of town fam, and only had to make a few items to take to my FIL's girlfriend's house for the family dinner. She has cats, so the kiddo and I had to mega dose on allergy meds, but it was worth it. We had a delicious, simple dinner that everyone made a small portion of, so it wasn't a lot of work for anyone.

The gifts were great, and it was fun to see how much everyone loved them... my FIL and I have talked a lot about more intentional gift giving and de-junking our lives. It was so cool to see how everyone accomplished that. I got two amazing presents that bear mentioning. One is a teapot with built in tea press and some loose tea. I've been wanting something like that for a long time, so I'm really excited about it. The other was from my SIL. This year, when I took up knitting, she got excited because she's also a knitter. She gave me a beautiful knitting basket (and I've been thinking of buying myself one at an after Christmas sale) filled with all sorts of knitting stuff. I've already read the knitting book, am using one of the patterns to knit a scarf with the yarn and needles she bought me.

I did have a mild allergy attack, but the meds really kept it from being horrible, and once I got home, had a cup of tea, and took a bath, I'm feeling 100%, and ready to get a little shut eye.

I am convinced that because our family took so much time to simply our holiday, we made it a really enjoyable time. I think this is going to be our new Christmas tradition. The productions most of us turn it into is just too much. And really, it's so not worth it. The girls got a number of lovely gifts, all things they wanted, but how can they play with them all at once? Watching them with their one gift Christmas Eve, it was apparent that they really are just as happy with one really good gift as they are with a hundred. I'd even be so bold as to argue that the one gift meant a lot more than getting just a bunch of stuff.

I'm not sure what your holiday looked like. But I hope it was as lovely as ours.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

The Winter of Candy Canes by Debbie Viguié



It is time to play a Wild Card! Every now and then, a book that I have chosen to read is going to pop up as a FIRST Wild Card Tour. Get dealt into the game! (Just click the button!) Wild Card Tours feature an author and his/her book's FIRST chapter!

You never know when I might play a wild card on you!





Today's Wild Card author is:


and the book:


The Winter of Candy Canes

Zondervan (October 1, 2008)


ABOUT THE AUTHOR:


Debbie Viguié has been writing for most of her life. She has experimented with poetry and nonfiction, but her true passion lies in writing novels.

She obtained her Bachelor of Arts degree in Creative Writing from UC Davis. While at Davis she met her husband, Scott, at auditions for a play. It was love at first sight.

Debbie and Scott now live on the island of Kauai. When Debbie is not writing and Scott has time off they love to indulge their passion for theme parks.


The Sweet Seasons Novels:

The Summer of Cotton Candy
The Fall of Candy Corn
The Winter of Candy Canes
The Spring of Candy Apples


Visit the author's website.

Product Details:

List Price: $ 9.99
Reading level: Young Adult
Paperback: 208 pages
Publisher: Zondervan (October 1, 2008)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0310717523
ISBN-13: 978-0310717522

AND NOW...THE FIRST CHAPTER:


Candace Thompson was once again eye-to-eye with Lloyd Peterson, hiring manager for The Zone theme park. This time, though, she felt far more confident. She had already spent her summer working as a cotton candy vendor, and she had worked one of the mazes for the annual Halloween event. She had even saved the park from saboteurs.

Now she was back, and this time she was interviewing for a job working the Christmas events at the park. Surely after everything she had done for the Scare event, she had nothing to worry about. She tucked a strand of red hair back behind her ear as she gazed intently at the man across from her.

“So you want to work Holly Daze?” he asked.

She nodded. Christmas at The Zone was a big deal, and the park began its official celebrations the day after Thanksgiving.

“You keep hiring on for short bursts of time and then leaving. Do you have some sort of problem committing to things?” he asked, staring hard at her.

She was stunned, but answered, “I don’t have any problem with commitment. I signed on to do specific things, and the jobs ended. That’s not my fault. I didn’t quit.”

“So, you plan on making a habit of this?” he demanded. “Are you going to show up here again in a -couple of months expecting me to give you some kind of job for spring break?”

“No, I — ”

“I know your type,” he said, standing up abruptly. “You’re just a party girl. No commitments . . . no cares . . . just grab some quick cash and get out. You think you can handle Holly Daze? Well, you can’t! You’re weak and a quitter. You’re going to bail on me as soon as your school vacation starts, and then what? Well, let me tell you, missy. You aren’t wanted here. So just pack your bags and get out!”

By the end of his tirade, he was shouting, eyes bulging behind his glasses and tie swinging wildly as he shook his finger under her nose. Candace recoiled, sure that he had finally flipped out. I’m going to end up as a headline: Girl Murdered by Stressed-Out Recruiter, she thought wildly. Well, I’m not going down without a fight! She jumped to her feet and put some distance between her and the wildly wagging finger.

“You need to calm down!” she said, projecting her voice like her drama teacher had taught her. Her voice seemed to boom in the tiny office. “Pull yourself together. You’re a representative of this theme park, and there is no call to insult me. Furthermore, I’m not a quitter. I’ll work for the entire Christmas season. Then the next time I come in here, I’ll expect you to treat me with some respect. Do you even realize what I’ve done for this park so far? Seriously. Take a chill pill.”

She stopped speaking when she realized that he had gone completely quiet. She held her breath, wondering when the next explosion was going to come. Instead, he sat down abruptly and waved her back to her chair.

“Very good. You passed the test,” he said, picking up a pen.

“What test?” she asked, edging her way back into the chair.

“The ultimate test. You’re going to be one of Santa’s elves.”

“Doesn’t Santa, you know, have his own elves?” she asked, still not sure that he was completely in charge of his senses.

“Of course Santa has his own elves. However, when he’s here at The Zone we supply him with courtesy elves so that they can continue making toys at the North Pole,” Mr. Peterson told her.

“So, I’m going to be a courtesy elf?” she asked.

He nodded and handed her a single sheet of paper. “Sign this.”

She took it. “What? Just one thing to sign?” She had expected another huge stack of forms that would leave her hand cramped for hours afterward.

He nodded curtly. “You’re now in our system as a regular seasonal employee. All of your other paperwork transfers.”

“Regular seasonal” sounded like some kind of contradiction to her, but she was still not entirely convinced his outburst had been a test. She scanned it, signed her name, and then handed it back to him.

“Good. Report to wardrobe on Saturday for your costume fitting,” he said.

“Okay, thank you,” she said, standing up and backing toward the door.

“Welcome back, Candy,” he said, smiling faintly.

“Thanks,” she said, before bolting out the door.

As soon as she was outside the building, she whipped out her cell phone and called her friend Josh, a fellow employee of The Zone.

“Well?” he asked when he picked up.

“I think Mr. Peterson has seriously lost it,” she said. “He totally flipped out on me.”

Josh laughed. “Let me guess. You’re going to be an elf.”

“So he was serious? That was some whacked-out test?”

“Yeah. Elves are considered a class-one stress position, and it can get pretty intense.”

“How hard can it be to be an elf?” she asked.

She was rewarded by a burst of laughter on the other end.

“Josh, what is it you’re not telling me?”

He just kept laughing.

“Okay, seriously. You were the one who convinced me to work Holly Daze. I think it’s only fair you tell me whatever it is I need to know.”

“Sorry!” he gasped. She wasn’t sure if he was apologizing or refusing to tell her.

A girl bounced around the corner and slammed into Candace.

“Josh, I’ll call you later,” she said, hanging up.

“Sorry,” Becca apologized.

Becca was one of Candace’s other friends from the park, one who had some sort of bizarre allergy to sugar that made her uncontrollably hyper. Candace looked suspiciously at Becca. Her cheeks were flushed, her eyes were glistening, and she was hopping from one foot to the other.

“You didn’t have sugar, did you?” Candace asked, fear ripping through her.

“No! Promise,” Becca said.

“Then what gives?”

“Roger made me laugh really hard,” Becca explained.

Roger had a crush on Becca and had wanted to ask her out since Halloween. It hadn’t happened yet.

“Oh,” was all Candace could think to say.

“So, are you working Holly Daze?” Becca asked.

“Yeah. I’m going to be an elf.”

Suddenly, Becca went completely still, and the smile left her face. “I’m sorry,” she said.

“Why?” Candace asked.

Becca just shook her head. “I’ve gotta get back to the Muffin Mansion. I’ll catch you later.”

She hurried off, and Candace watched her go. Okay, now I know there’s something -people aren’t telling me.

She debated about following Becca and forcing her to spill, but instead she headed for the parking lot where her best friend Tamara was waiting. She walked through the Exploration Zone, one of the several themed areas in the park.

The Zone theme park was created and owned by John
Hanson, a former professional quarterback who believed in healthy competition at work and play. His theme park had several areas, or zones, where -people could compete with each other and themselves at just about anything. Almost everyone who worked at The Zone was called a referee. The exceptions were the costumed characters called mascots. Most of them, including Candace’s boyfriend, Kurt, were to be found in the History Zone. -People visiting the park were called players, and the areas of the park they could reach were called on field. Only refs could go off field.

Candace cut through an off field area to get to the referee parking lot. She waved at a few other -people she recognized from her time spent working there. Finally, she slid into her friend’s waiting car.

“So are you going to be the Christmas queen?” Tamara asked.

“What am I, Lucy VanPelt? There’s no Christmas queen in Charlie Brown’s Christmas play, and there’s no Christmas queen in The Zone,” Candace said.

Tamara fake pouted. “Are you sure? I think I’d make a beautiful Christmas queen.”

Candace laughed. Tamara was gorgeous, rich, and fun. Her whole family practically redefined the word wealthy, and, with her dark hair and olive skin, Tamara was usually the prettiest girl in any room. She didn’t let it go to her head, though. Anybody who knew Tamara would vote for her as Christmas queen.

“Although I think you would, they’re only hiring elves.”

“You’re going to be an elf?” Tamara smirked.

“Hey, it beats being a food cart vendor,” Candace said.

“But you’re so good at it. Cotton candy, candy corn . . . you can sell it all.”

“Thanks, I think. So, what are we doing tonight? Kurt’s going to swing by at six to pick us up.” Just mentioning her boyfriend’s name was enough to make Candace smile. She closed her eyes for just a minute and pictured him as she had first seen him — wearing a Lone Ranger costume. With his charm and piercing blue eyes, she had fallen for him right away.

“You told him my house, right?” Tamara said, interrupting her thoughts.

“Yeah. So, who’s this guy you’re taking?”

Tamara sighed. “Mark.”

“Uh-huh. And?”

“Remember my cousin Tina?”

“Yeah.”

“Well, she broke up with him over the summer, and he’s been all shattered since then. He won’t date other girls; he just mopes over her.”

“Attractive,” Candace said sarcastically.

“Tell me about it. Well, Tina asked me if I could help him get his confidence back and get over her or something.”

“A pity date? Are you kidding me? You want Kurt and I to double date with you on a pity date?”

“You don’t think I’m about to go by myself, do you? No way. That’s the best-friend creed. When you’re happy, I’m happy. When I’m miserable, you have to be too.”

“Great,” Candace said, rolling her eyes. “So, where are we going?”

“That’s the problem. I was thinking dinner, but then we’d have to talk, and frankly, I don’t want to hear him go on about Tina. Then I thought we could see a movie.”

“You wouldn’t have to talk to him,” Candace confirmed.

“Yeah, but what if — ”

“He tries to grab a hand or put his arm around you.”

“Exactly, and I don’t think me giving him a black eye was what Tina had in mind.”

“I guess that also rules out any kind of concert possibilities?” Candace asked wistfully.

“Yup. Sorry.”

“So, what did you come up with?”

“I was thinking . . . theme park?”

“No way. Kurt doesn’t like to spend his downtime there.”

“I thought he took you to that romantic dinner there over the summer.”

“It was the nicest restaurant he knew, and he got an employee discount.”

“Charming,” Tamara said.

“Plus, ever since we got trapped in there overnight, he’s been even more adamant about avoiding it when he’s off work.”

“I can’t believe you two get to be the stuff of urban legend, and you don’t even appreciate it.”

Candace sighed. It was true that she and Kurt had spent one of the most miserable nights of their relationship trapped inside the theme park. Urban legend, though, had since transformed the story so that they were supposedly chased through the park by a psycho killer. It was still embarrassing to have -people point at her and say that she was the one. Around Halloween she had given up trying to correct -people. They were going to believe what they wanted.

“Earth to Candace. Helloooo?”

“Sorry. So, what does that leave us with? Shopping?”

“No need to torture both our dates,” Tamara said.

“Then what?”

“I don’t — miniature golf!” Tamara suddenly shrieked, so loudly that Candace jumped and slammed her head into the roof of the car.

“Tam! Don’t scare me like that.”

“Sorry. Miniature golf. What do you think? Built-in talking points, lots of movement, and zero grabby potential.”

“I like it. I’ll have to borrow one of your jackets though.”

“At least you’ll have an actual excuse this time,” Tamara teased.

A few minutes later they were at Tamara’s house and upstairs raiding her wardrobe. As Tamara considered and discarded a fifth outfit, Candace threw up her hands.

“Maybe if you’d tell me what you’re looking for, I could help.”

“I’m looking for something, you know, nunlike.”

Candace stared at her friend for a moment before she burst out laughing. She fell to the floor, clutching her stomach as tears streamed down her face. Tamara crossed her arms and tapped her foot, and Candace just laughed harder.

“I don’t know why you think that’s so funny. You know I don’t go past kissing.”

“Tam, nuns can’t even do that. And if you’re looking for something that will completely hide your body, then you’re going to have to go to the mall instead of the closet. You don’t own anything that doesn’t say ‘look at me.’ I’m sorry, but it’s true.”

“Really? Maybe we should go to your house. Think I could find what I’m looking for in your closet?”

“Not since I started dating and mom made me throw out all my old camp T-shirts,” Candace said with a grin.

“Then hello, you’ve got no call to laugh.”

Candace stood up, stomach still aching from laughing so hard. “Tam, I’m not criticizing. I’m just telling you, you’re not going to find what you’re looking for.”

Tam reached into the closet. “Oh, yeah, what about this?” she asked, producing jeans and a black turtleneck.

“If you’re going for the secret agent look, it’s a good choice.”

Tamara threw the jeans at her, and Candace ducked.

“I could wear some black pants with this. Would that be too funereal?

“For a pity date? Go for it.”

Candace opted to borrow Tamara’s discarded jeans instead of wearing the skirt she had brought with her. They turned out to be slightly tighter on her than they were on Tam, and she had to admit when she paired them with her red scoop-neck top that she looked really good.

When Kurt arrived a few minutes later, he whistled when he saw her.

“Keep the jeans,” Tamara whispered to her. “Obviously, they work for you.”

Kurt then looked at Tamara and frowned slightly. “Did you just come from a funeral?”

“No, but thank you for thinking so,” Tamara said with a smirk.

“I don’t — ”

Candace put her finger over his lips. “Don’t ask,” she advised him.

He smiled and kissed her finger, which made her giggle.

The doorbell rang again, and Candace turned, eager to see the infamous Mark.

Tamara opened the door, and Candace sucked in her breath. Mark was gorgeous. He had auburn hair, piercing green eyes, and model-perfect features. He was almost as tall as Kurt, and he was stunning in khaki Dockers and a green Polo shirt.

“Hi,” he said, smiling.

Tamara glanced at her and rolled her eyes.

“Hi, Mark.”

Kurt drove, and Candace was quick to slide into the front seat with him, leaving Tamara and Mark to the back. She shook her head. Mark was not her idea of a pity date in any sense of the word. Maybe Tamara would come around if she actually talked to him.

They made it to the miniature golf course and were soon on the green. Candace got a hole in one on the first time up to putt, and Kurt gave her a huge reward kiss.

When they moved on to the next hole, Tamara whispered in her ear, “Thanks a lot. This is supposed to be a no grabby zone. Now Mark will be getting ideas.”

“Tam, you really need to relax a little.”

They made it through the course in record time, and Kurt gave Candace another kiss for winning by one stroke. After turning in their clubs, the guys headed inside to order pizza while Candace and Tamara went to the restroom.

“This date is the worst,” Tamara groaned once they were alone.

“What’s wrong with you? He’s gorgeous.”

“Really? I guess I just can’t see past the Tina mope.”

“What mope? He hasn’t even mentioned her, and he’s done nothing but smile all night. You should totally take him to Winter Formal.”

“No way. This is a one-date-only kind of thing. I’m not taking him to Winter Formal.”

“Fine. Suit yourself. I’m just telling you that if it weren’t for Kurt, I’d be taking him to Winter Formal.”

Tamara laughed.

“As if. There’s no way you’d ask a guy out.”

“I don’t know. You might be surprised.”

“It’s a moot point anyway. I’ll find someone to take.”

“You could always take Josh,” Candace suggested.

“You’re not setting me up with Josh, so just forget it.”

“Fine.”

“Find out for me, though, if Santa needs a Mrs. Claus,” Tamara said.

“You’re going to find some way to be the Christmas queen, aren’t you?” Candace asked.

“Even if I have to marry old Saint Nick.”

They both laughed.



Friday, December 19, 2008

Assaulted by Joy by Stephen W. Simpson



It is time to play a Wild Card! Every now and then, a book that I have chosen to read is going to pop up as a FIRST Wild Card Tour. Get dealt into the game! (Just click the button!) Wild Card Tours feature an author and his/her book's FIRST chapter!

You never know when I might play a wild card on you!





Today's Wild Card author is:


and the book:


Assaulted by Joy

Zondervan (October 1, 2008)


ABOUT THE AUTHOR:


Stephen W. Simpson has a PhD in clinical psychology and an MA in theology from Fuller Theological Seminary. The coauthor of What Wives Wish Their Husbands Knew about Sex, he teaches psychology at Fuller Theological Seminary and also has a private psychotherapy practice. Stephen and his wife, Shelley, live with their four children in Pasadena, California.

Visit the author's website.

Product Details:

List Price: $ 14.99
Paperback: 240 pages
Publisher: Zondervan (October 1, 2008)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0310283779
ISBN-13: 978-0310283775


My Review:

I'm only about 1/3 the way through, but I'm really enjoying this book so far. I can definitely relate to him, and his style is very engaging. Definitely worth picking up!


AND NOW...THE FIRST CHAPTER:


Introduction: Assaulted by Joy


I’m returning from a four-mile run at 8:30 a.m. on a Friday. A chorus of “Dada!” greets me as soon as I open the door. Hayley looks up at my baseball cap and shouts, “Daddy wear funny hat!” and breaks out laughing. A court jester had replaced the docile little girl of only a few months before.

My wife Shelley scurries past me, carrying a laundry basket.

“Are you ready to take over?” she asks.

“Let me change shirts,” I answer. “I’m pretty sweaty.”

In confirmation of this, Ella points at my shirt and proclaims, “Daddy all wet. Daddy sticky mess!”

“Right you are, El –Belle,” I say, kissing her on the forehead before rushing off to change clothes.

At one year and three months, the children can walk without falling, but they have yet to develop the speed and agility that will turn them into a roaming toddler hit squad. They are coordinated but not dangerous. Thus, we can now care for our children without the assistance of the National Guard. I can even take care of them by myself sometimes, though it isn’t easy. At first, I was petrified whenever Shelley left me alone with the kids. I thought that one wrong move would land somebody in the hospital. Now I’m learning that the stakes aren’t so high. I take one-hour shifts before I go to work in the morning. Friday mornings are the best because I get up early and run first. The exercise wakes me up and elevates my mood. That way, the children get to spend time with their father instead of some monstrosity that needs two cans of Red Bull before he can do more than grunt.

I emerge from my bedroom wearing a clean shirt and a fresh coat of deodorant. As soon as I walk out of the door, my son Jordan barrels into my legs. He stretches out his arms for me to pick him up. He points to the light switch on the wall and shouts, “Lights!” I hold him up to the switch and he flicks it on and off, laughing with delight. When he’s finished, I put him the ground and he bolts down the hallway like he’s running the hundred-yard dash. Jordan regards walking as a poor substitute for sprinting. Since he’s built like a cinderblock, it’s like having a miniature locomotive in our house.

I walk into the living room and see our daughter Emma sitting in the corner playing with big Leggo blocks. I kiss her on the top of her head and she giggles. Then I notice something odd about the Leggos. She isn’t stacking them like she usually does. When I realize what Emma’s doing, I gasp and call Shelley.

My wife, Shelley, darted down the hallway and into the living room. She had a worried look on her face, because I usually only call her when there’s trouble.

“Look at what Emma did,” I say.

Shelley looks. Then she squeals with delight.

“Emma!” she shouts. “You’re so smart! I am so proud of you.”

At only fifteen months of age, Emma has arranged the Leggos according to size and color. One row had large green blocks. The next had small green blocks. Then there was a row of large red blocks, followed by a small red row, and so on.

Shelley gives Emma a hug and Emma basks in her mother’s affection. Then she picks up the blocks and starts making a tower.

I head to the kitchen to grab a bowl of cereal, but Ella stops me with a large cardboard book in her hands.

“Read book?”

Breakfast can wait.

I sit on the on the ground, put Ella in my lap, and start reading. Ella repeats everything I say. Then someone accosts me from behind. It’s Emma, tickling me and laughing so hard you’d think I was tickling her. No one is safe from a tickling ambush while Emma’s around. I let out a desperate laugh until Emma is satisfied that she’s subdued her father with mirth. I return my attention to Ella and the book, unaware that Hayley is about to take a nosedive off the couch.

Thud.

I jump up, making sure not to topple Ella, and rush over to Hayley. She’s face down on the ground.

“Hayley Rose! Precious, are you okay?”

For a few seconds, she’s silent. Then I hear, “Heh heh heh heh . . .”

I roll her over to find a big, mischievous grin.

“Kaboom!” she shouts.

“You little rascal!” I say and started to tickle her. She rolls around on the floor, squealing with delight.

Hayley’s quiet demeanor during her first few months of life was nothing but an act. She was waiting in the wings, observing her audience before she took center stage. She is now a bona fide ham and the biggest comedian in the family. The sinister thing about this is that she knows how to make her father crack up on cue.

The next thing I know, all my children are on me at once. I submit and collapse to the floor on my back. Everyone crawls on top of me, laughing. They are all trying to put their face on top of mine. I kiss each one of them and they kiss me back, laughing. We frolic around on the floor like this until Shelley, walks in.

“Why aren’t the kids dressed yet?” she asks.

“Because I’ve been waylaid by Lilliputians!” I shout. The tired look on Shelley’s disappears as she shakes her head and smiles.

Sometimes when I look in the mirror, I don’t recognize what I see. Where did the angry young man go? Who is this father and husband gazing back at me with crows feet at the corners of his eyes and thin lines on edge of his smile? But then I take a second look and realize that I know him, but it’s been a while since we’ve hung out. He’s reemerging from years of cynicism that are being chiseled away by grace.

You see, I’m a jerk. That’s the first thing you have to understand. The second thing you have to understand is that you probably are too sometimes, and we both enjoy it too much. We get a little tickle inside when someone ignores our advice and screws up as a result. We like shutting down people who get in our way and avoiding people who annoy us. We watch Benny Hinn for entertainment value, congratulating ourselves for being too smart to buy what he’s selling. We disregard people who don’t get our jokes and we don’t suffer fools gladly. We’re not evil or even malicious most of the time – just jerks. We have compassion and love, but it doesn’t take much for us to roll our eyes and mumble something sarcastic under our breath.

I’m probably more of jerk than you are. It drives me nuts if something interferes with my life. I don’t like being bothered and I don’t want any help. If you catch me when I’m in the mood to socialize, you’ll love me. Work with my schedule and I’ll deliver the sun and the moon. Otherwise, I hate being told what to do and I have problems with authority. I’m short-tempered when I’m under stress or in a hurry. I start yelling inside my car when another driver cuts me off. As a bonus, I have Attention Deficit Disorder, which means I get impatient, irritated, and bored faster than normal people do.

I am not the guy you’d pick to be the father of quadruplets. But we’ll get to that later.

I became a Christian when I was seven years old. I always thought my story would be boring because I met Jesus as a child. Turns out I was wrong. The scary and suspenseful stuff happened after I became a Christian. Sometimes, it happened because I was a Christian. In C.S. Lewis’ Surprised by Joy, his conversion to Christianity comes at the end of the book. The first time I read it, I felt a little cheated by the last page when Lewis realizes that he’s a Christian while riding a bus. I wanted to know what happened next. I couldn’t relate to a story that ends with becoming a Christian. In my experience, that’s where the story begins.

When I walked down the aisle of a Baptist church as a boy to receive Christ as my Savior, nobody told me that being a Christian is difficult, dangerous even. That information must have been in the fine print. The way I understood it, the closer you were to God, the happier you would be. The less you sinned and the more you followed God’s Word, the more your life would be meaningful, happy, and complete. In my years as a follower of Christ, however, I’ve discovered that the opposite is often true. Don’t get me wrong—the most ecstatic, victorious moments of my life resulted from having relationship with Jesus, but so have the most aggravating and painful ones. Only now am I learning to live in this tension and discover that it can’t be any other way.

I think most Christians know this, but don’t like to talk about it because such confessions don’t make for the neat, linear success stories that we like to hear. Telling people that being in a relationship with Christ can be maddening and exasperating isn’t effective evangelism. You wouldn’t put it in a tract or a revival brochure. But I wish someone had told me at some point. They didn’t have to tell me when I was seven, but they could have clued me in around age fourteen when my theological roof started to cave in. If they had, maybe it wouldn’t have taken me decades to figure out that a relationship with God involves a lot of scary twists and turns.

If you’ve been a Christian for a while, your relationship with God has probably frustrated and frightened you more than once. Maybe you’ve been confused, angry, or afraid. Maybe nobody told you that was part of the deal when you opened the door of your heart and let Jesus walk in. You also probably didn’t realize that some of your brothers and sisters in Christ were going to drive you insane, doing and saying things you find appalling. It’s hard to live with all that frustration and confusion when you thought that becoming a Christian guaranteed a life of love and peace.

When I discovered that a relationship with Christ wasn’t always warm and fuzzy, I became frightened. Then I got mad. Then I stopped caring. God gave me plenty of opportunities to pursue joy, but cynicism always felt safer. So, instead of offering me joy, he assaulted me with it. When he brought quadruplets to the fight, I had no choice but to shout, “Uncle!” and submit. That’s when the brown and God made the brown, stagnate rivers in my life flow with golden wine. I drank deep and was born again . . . again.





Chapter 1: Rock and Roll Rebel




“There’s no such thing as Christian rock,” said Brother Jeff. “It’s all the devil’s music.” Was he throwing out such inanities just to make me crazy? Did he want me to lose my temper so he could kick me out of youth group?

“How can you say that?” I asked Brother Jeff. “There’s nothing about it in the Bible.”

My words echoed off the white walls and cardboard ceiling tiles. I could hear the neon lights in the ceiling humming from behind foggy Plexiglas panes. Everyone in the junior high youth group sat in tense silence. Some just stared at the faded green carpet, averting their eyes from the conflict. Others slumped down into the old, overstuffed couches, venturing sheepish glances as they clutched throw pillows. Most of my pubescent peers, however, were the edge of their seats, transfixed as the forty year-old associate pastor and I, the fourteen year-old youth group president, tried to bludgeon each other with words.

“Rock roll is the music of rebellion,” said Brother Jeff. “Even if the lyrics are supposedly Christian, the music makes people lustful and contentious.” His mouth was smiling but his eyes were narrow.

“But it doesn’t say that in the Bible!” I shouted. Brother Jeff was wearing me down with edicts that sounded authoritative but made no sense. Every time I presented a reasonable argument, Brother Jeff shot back with something asinine wrapped in a mature, patronizing tone. I was about to pop a blood vessel, but Brother Jeff was as agitated as I was. His face bore a pleasant smile, but the pale, freckled skin beneath his fiery red hair was getting pinker by the second.

“Psalms 98 talks about making all kinds of loud noises before the Lord,” I said. “That sounds a lot like Christian rock to me.”

“You are perverting God’s holy word with that interpretation.”

“I absolutely refuse to accept that,” I said.

“Then you need to ask God for wisdom,” he said with an eerie calm. “You need to respect the leaders God has given you. After God, you must respect and obey your parents. After them, you must respect and obey your church authorities. That means me.”

Then he turned to the rest of the kids and said, “If you don’t believe that rock music makes people rebellious, just look at who’s rebelling.” Then he laughed. I heard somebody in the back whisper, “Oooo . . .”, the universal confirmation that you’ve just received a verbal smack down.

I gritted my teeth and lurched forward. I might have even growled. One of my friends put a hand on my arm and eased me back in my chair. I had lost this battle, but the war was just beginning.

*****

I grew up in Lexington, Kentucky. On the surface, Lexington is about three things: basketball, horses, and shopping centers. Children are breast-fed on the first two. If you meet someone from Lexington whom you find shy and reserved, ask him or her about horseracing or University of Kentucky basketball. You’ll hear more than you ever wanted about Secretariat and Seattle Slew, including their bloodlines and the farms where they were bred and trained. You’ll be informed that Keeneland racetrack is far superior to that tourist slum, Churchill Downs. Want to see a real live nervous breakdown? Just bring up the game winning shot by Duke’s Christian Laettner in the 1992 East Regional Finals of the NCAA tournament. It halted UK’s run to the Final Four and sent the entire state into a coma. That game is the Alamo for Wildcat fans and no one in the Bluegrass State has ever recovered.

The shopping centers you won’t hear about. While I was growing up, Lexington spilled over its borders, swallowing up farms and turning them into parking lots encircled by Wal-Marts, Blockbusters, Payless Shoe Stores, and frozen yogurt bars. Stick an Applebee’s in the middle and you’ve got the building block of Lexington consumerism: the high-fat, middle-class strip mall.

Downtown Lexington, however, stands steadfast amidst the city’s suburban sprawl. Stately stone buildings from the early 20th century line Main Street and Vine in solid indifference to the commercial aspirations of the periphery. The two skyscrapers look like an afterthought, gaudy glass trees in a baroque stone garden. The neighborhoods downtown have housing projects, historic brownstones, and beautiful houses that are eighty years old. Artists, black folks, students, and college professors reside in these, politely ignoring the rest of the city. Attempts to put in chain restaurants or big retail stores usually fail, while small businesses thrive. The best food, the most exotic clothes, and the only art that isn’t a painting of a horse or a sketch of basketball jersey can be found downtown.

The horse farms rest just outside town, where the suburbs surrender to green fields cascading over rolling hills. White and black picked fences create boundaries for the dark, gleaming horses that sustain all this beauty. Majestic barns – more opulent than any house I’ll ever own – sit atop hills like castles of feudal kingdoms. Out there, the culture clash between urban and suburban becomes irrelevant. Out there, you just feel lucky to live in Kentucky.

Though I loved the horse farms and found downtown fascinated and alluring, I was a child of the suburbs. I spent my youth running through manicured subdivisions and shopping centers. The suburbs were also the place where big churches popped up like mushrooms. Evangelical Christianity was the second largest religion in Lexington, right behind basketball. My family attended a mammoth Baptist church that, like many, had moved away from downtown so it could swell and spread on the edge of town. My parents started attending the church because of its large, vital youth program. They wanted my two sisters and I to have a place where we could grow in the love and knowledge of the Lord. And that’s what happened.

When I was seven years old, I began a journey with God that would be the source of more frustration and fear and more joy and wonder than I could imagine. The high school choir had returned from their summer tour to perform a homecoming concert. This was a big deal at my church. The youth choir practiced all year long and toured the country for two weeks every summer. The congregation welcomed them back as conquering heroes and the homecoming concert was one of the major events of the year. There was always a lot of laughing, crying, and hugging, the climax of which was an invitation to receive Christ that went on for at least thirty minutes. We sang “Just as I Am” ten times in a row, the organist doing her best to mix things up as she reached the seventh chorus. But nobody seemed to mind. People, mostly teenagers (some from the choir, even), flocked down front to accept Jesus as their savior.

Despite all the commotion, I was bored and fidgety. I spent most of the concert drawing pictures on the offering envelopes. I drew everything from spaceships to army men to Batman giving the Joker a much deserved beat down. But when the invitation began, something happened. I had feelings I didn’t understand and couldn’t name. Looking back, I’m pretty sure the Holy Spirit was at work. It had to be, because, before the invitation, I was only thinking about when the service would be over. All of a sudden, I felt a strange urge to become closer to God. It wasn’t about salvation or avoiding hell—for a reason I can’t explain, I wanted to graduate to higher level of faith. I wanted that relationship with Jesus that I’d heard so much about.

When I told my parents that I wanted to go down front, they looked surprised. They must have wondered why the fidgety kid defacing church bulletins all of a sudden wanted a religious experience. My mother wore a floral dress with a shiny broach and my father had on sport coat but no tie because it was the evening service. Mom looked at me with her trademark sideways gaze beneath raised eyebrows. When she saw I was serious about going down front, she smiled. Dad leaned in close and said, “Do you understand what this means?”

I nodded my head. He put his arm around me and squeezed my shoulder.

“All right, buddy,” he said. “Go ahead.”

I scurried down front and the pastor took my small hand in his gigantic one. It was red and warm, like my father’s. He asked me if I was certain that I wanted to receive Christ as my Lord and Savior. I told him that I was. He told me to sit up front with one of the deacons until after the service.

After the concert, the pastor took me back to his office. There was shiny wood everywhere and more books than I’d ever seen outside of a library. I sat in a chair that was too big for me and the pastor sat down across from me, leaning in close.

“Do you understand what it means to commit your life to Christ?” he said, his voice deep and rolling. It felt weird to hear him speaking to me alone instead of the whole congregation.

“I think so,” I said. “It means I become a Christian.”

“Yes,” said the pastor. “But that means you ask Jesus to forgive you of your sins and come and live inside your heart forever. Are you ready to do that?”

To my seven year-old brain, having Jesus live inside my heart sounded like just about the coolest thing in the world.

“Yes,” I said. “I’m ready to accept Jesus into my heart.”

The pastor led me in prayer, asking me to repeat after him. When we were finished, he told me that I was a Christian now. He said that I was going to heaven and that God loved me. It felt like I had joined a special club. When I left the pastor’s office, my parents were waiting for me. I started prattling about going to heaven and having Jesus inside my heart. My father said that he was proud. My mother kept asking me what lead me to make this decision. Was it the sermon? The music? But I couldn’t tell her. I just knew that I wanted to become a Christian and now I was one. I was elated

We left church went to Shoney’s. My stomach started to growl at first sight of the twenty foot Big Boy, with his wide-eyed smile and red and white checkered overalls. I got a burger as big as my hand with cheddar cheese dripping down the side, accompanied by fries that were thick and salty. I cleaned my plate and felt good about it. As I got into bed that night, I felt safe, full, and warm.

For the next seven years, I went to church whenever the doors were open. I loved not only the people, but the building itself. It was big, austere, and mysterious. It contained dozens of secret places—kitchens, alcoves, storage closets, baptismal pools, and large meeting halls. I explored every one of them. The building was almost a metaphor for God—large and strong with endless mysteries to investigate.

I also read the Bible constantly and pestered adults with a million of questions about God. I wanted to be involved in everything and adults described me as “wise beyond my years” and “a young Bible scholar.

Now, before you start thinking I was a budding young saint, let me explain the other reason I loved church. I didn’t have many friends at school. I was fat (I weighed more at age 14 than I do right now) with bucked teeth, and the most severe case of acne in the history of Western Civilization. Making matters worse, my pituitary gland went off like a hand grenade at age eleven, dragging me into adolescence two years ahead of my peers. I shot up a dozen inches over my friends, but I didn’t get any thinner. Instead, my acne got worse and I developed body odor. I started shaving with my Dad’s electric razor in sixth grade. This produced a red razor burn across my neck that made me look like I’d been hanging from a noose. Oh yeah, and my eyebrows grew together, creating a uni-brow.

The prepubescent world did not react kindly to a massive, hairy man-child with skin like a leper. Kids called me fatso, pizza face, lard butt, and the like. I hung around other unpopular kids at school, arguing about who would win in a fight between Luke Skywalker and Superman. The only consolation was that nobody tired to beat me up since I was the size of a duplex.

At church, however, things were different. From the time I was ten until I was sixteen, everything at church revolved around two things: The Bible and singing. By the time I was twelve, I knew more about the Bible than most of the adults at the church. During Sunday School and Bible Study, I felt smart and important instead of fat and ugly. When we weren’t studying the Bible, we were in choir practice. Our church had a large, active music ministry and they started asking you to sing not long after you could walk. I’m not Pavarotti or even Barry Manilow, but I sing pretty well. Sometimes I was even asked to fill in for someone in the adult choir if they couldn’t make a Sunday morning. I was singing solos by the time I was thirteen. So, between my Bible IQ and my vocal chords, I almost passed for cool at church.

God had granted me a place to escape the pain of the world outside and fall in love with him. Heaven and earth merged as I studied the Bible and spent every spare minute at church. The people at church took care of me. I loved them, we all loved God, and everyone was happy. The solution to life’s problems could be found in each other, the Bible, and a God who could do anything and save anybody. Life was perfect and I believed it would stay that way for eternity.

I was wrong.


* * *

When I was almost fourteen, my parents and I moved to a new house and they ceded the entire basement to me. My sisters, eleven and fourteen years older, had long since moved away, so there was no competition for space. That basement became my escape from the rest of the world, albeit a very loud one.

By eighth grade, I had constructed a massive stereo system. The components were mismatches from different eras of technology. It was an ugly, hulking thing that leaned forward like some aluminum tower of Piza. But it sounded good. And it was loud. I had four speakers in my den and strung wire under the brown shag carpet to juice up two more in my bedroom. All around the basement, rock and roll spewed forth from trembling woofers behind black mesh screens encased in particleboard.

I had enough music down in that hole to wait out a nuclear winter. When I was a teenager, the digital age was still twenty years away, so I had albums. Stacks of albums. At $7 a pop, my allowance and money from part-time jobs helped me buy four or five records a month. By the time I was sixteen, I had over two hundred rock albums. Old records, new records, imported records, used records, and bootleg records stood in teetering columns around my basement. I spent hours listening to them while gazing in wonder at the artwork on the sleeve and pouring over the liner notes. Whenever my father told me what a waste of money it all was, I just looked at him like he was out of his mind.

The basement’s seclusion from the rest of the house gave me solitude, but the music made it my sanctuary. Music was my elixir, the only other thing than prayer and the Bible that made me feel quiet inside. One night at a party, I saw a girl on whom I had an obsessive crush kissing another guy. I returned home shaking with rage and sadness. But that same night MTV televised a concert that the radio was broadcasting at the same time. This was before every TV in the world offered hi-fi sound, so hearing music from television in stereo over 100 watt speakers seemed like a miracle. And, by a divine stroke, my favorite band was performing: Queen. While not the most morally pure band in the world, their music was amazing. Freddie Mercury pranced around the 20” screen while the speakers hummed to life with the sound of Brian May’s guitar. I knew every song by heart and lip-synced the words, dancing around the room in a hypermasculine imitation of Freddie. By the third song, I had forgotten that nasty kiss. When the concert was over, I went to bed fell into a deep sleep without dreams.

You’d think rock and roll fanaticism wouldn’t go over well in a fundamentalist Baptist church, but that wasn’t the case. Though our leaders had evangelical fervor, they weren’t legalistic. They encouraged us to be obedient to God and were quick to correct us when we got out of line, but they weren’t rigid or heavy-handed. Brother Rob was our youth pastor back then and he was a man of passion and talent. He nurtured everyone’s gifts and took an interest in our lives. On a bus ride once, Brother Rob sat next to me and listened to several Queen songs in a row as I prattled on about the intricacies of the music. He did his best to seem interested, poor guy. He cheered along with everyone else on the bus as I played air guitar during “We Will Rock You,” looking like wooly mammoth having a seizure. Brother Rob and our other leaders were conservative fundamentalists, but, as long as God remained top priority, they didn’t sweat the small stuff.

They even knew how to disagree with me. They expressed concern about some of the music I listened to, like AC/DC (hard to argue with that one), but they always listened to my perspective. One year, our church went through the inevitable “spinning records backwards to unmask the devil” phase. I watched in horror as beloved leaders spun records backwards and told us that the resulting gobbledygook said things about worshipping the devil. Though it drove me nuts, it was also one of the most exciting times I had in church because my leaders allowed me to debate them. They let me lead an entire youth meeting providing an alternative perspective on rock and roll and all this back-masking nonsense. They didn’t always agree with me, but they respected my right to challenge them. They let me play almost anything I wanted to on summer mission trips as long as the lyrics weren’t too sketchy. And I could play Christian rock all day long. The music might sound like someone murdering cats with chainsaws, but as long as the lyrics were about Jesus, they didn’t care.

But Brother Jeff cared. He cared a lot.

Brother Jeff became the associate pastor of my church when I was in the eighth grade. In addition to his administrative duties, he was in charge of the youth program. On his first day, the youth and their parents gathered in the gymnasium to meet him.

The senior pastor walked in to the gym escorting the thinnest adult male I had ever seen. He had a comical head of curly red, almost orange, hair. His freckles gave the rest of his skin a similar orangish glow. He looked like a carrot.

“God bless you,” said Jeff the Carrot. “I have been praying for this church, praying that God will guide me and continue his great work with the young people of this congregation.” He talked for over an hour in a nasal southern drawl about his vision for the youth program. He told us “God’s gonna do this” and “God’s gonna do that” and “God’s gonna bless y’all.” I still knew next to nothing about Jeff except that he looked like a carrot in a red clown wig that talked like it was yanked out of the dirt somewhere in South Georgia. The only relevant thing he told us was that the youth were allowed to call him by his first name. How magnanimous.

The adults asked questions first. “What is your vision for our youth ministry?” “What are your outreach plans?” “What’s your philosophy on Biblical teachings for teens?” Blah, blah, blah. No one in the room under twenty cared about any of this. The “young people” only cared about one thing. Could we hang out with this guy? Was he cool? I don’t mean “cool” like hip or even youthful. Nothing is more embarrassing than an old guy trying to act young. We wanted to know if he was someone we could trust. I took it upon myself to find out.

I raised my hand and the senior pastor recognized me.

“What’s your favorite Christian rock band?”

Though a silly question, I wanted to give Brother Jeff an easy way to connect with the youth in the room. The question got a few chuckles, which lighten the mood in the room.

But Brother Jeff did anything but laugh or connect with the youth. He breathed a heavy, affected sigh and rolled his eyes toward the heavens.

“Stephen, or is it Stevie?” he asked without waiting for the answer. “I’m afraid you might not care for my answer, which saddens me. But ultimately I answer to God and not to you or any of you other wonderful young people. My answer to your question is this: None. I think Christian rock is an abomination of all the other wonderful music that God has given us. Those rancid screeching guitars and that horrid pounding beat are, I believe, unleashed from the pit of hell. I despise Christian rock. Secular rock is worse, of course. I will abide none of it on my watch. No form of rock music will be played at any of our activities.”

He looked me in the eye and said, “I’m sorry”

My stomach lurched upward as I tried to comprehend what was happening.

Jeff inundated us with a whole new list of prohibitions, ones of which I had never heard nor imagined despite years of fundamentalist religion: no card playing (a sure-fire gateway to gambling), no ghost stories (a guaranteed way to conjure demons), no celebration of Halloween (more demons), and no movies unless they were rated “G.” He also forbade us to wear shorts, even though our mission trips visited states such as Georgia and Louisiana in the middle of August on a bus with no air conditioning. When I heard that, I could contain myself no longer. Without raising my hand I blurted out, “No shorts on our summer mission trips? The bus has no air-conditioning. We’ll all melt. And we’ll stink!”

That got a lot of laughs, but His Carrotness didn’t back down.

“I know it will be uncomfortable. But that’s nothing compared to the discomfort Christ experienced dying for our sins. Our mission trips will be the most important time for us to set an example to the pagan world and we will not be wearing shorts.”

A low whistle of amazement came from the back of the gym. Jeff’s eyes darted around looking for the culprit before he regained his composure and flashed an ultra-white smile.

No one asked any more questions after that. The senior pastor smiled and said something about us having plenty of time to get to know each other. He said it like it was a good thing.

I thought I was going to puke right on the gym floor. I had fought a long and hard battle for rock and roll at my church and finally gotten my mentors to listen. Now some guy shows up and, with a wave of his hand, banishes all music featuring guitars that plugged in, along with all other benign comforts of the flesh. I was in the middle of a bad dream.

Most teenagers would have stopped coming to youth group or just paid lip service to the new rules and gone about the time-honored practice of rebelling in secret. But not me. I declared war. This was my church. Church was the only place where I felt safe, understood, and respected. It was the only place I had fun. Now some dogmatic cleric was trying to ruin it for me. Over my dead body.

Poor Brother Jeff had no idea who he was up against. In a Southern Baptist Church, the Bible is the litmus test for everything. Ever since I’d walked down the aisle at age seven and taken the pastor’s hand, I’d been reading the Bible. I didn’t just listen to what my teachers told me about the Bible in Sunday school, I studied the thing. By age thirteen, I’d read the entire Bible (well, almost—I got the K.O. from Numbers in Chapter Three). I knew that Biblical support for Brother Jeff’s list of “don’ts” was thin at best and I wielded the word like a sword in our theological debates. I was certain that my knowledge of scripture would help me triumph over this new regime of the absurd.

I debated Jeff steadily for the next year, always using what I regarded as solid Biblical arguments. I prayed for him and for our church. I did my best to be a good example and a solid leader so that my disagreements with Jeff didn’t look like reckless defiance. I tangled with Jeff in public, in private, and in writing. I fought my war with prayerful diligence and refused to back down. For a long time, I thought I was winning. There was no way that this man could continue imposing ridiculous rules that were Biblically unsound, not to mention wildly unpopular. Well, at least they were unpopular at first . . .

One day I was talking to another guy in the youth group whom I liked and respected. He was a couple of years older and I’d always considered him cool. He was had introduced me to Christian rock, telling me about bands like Petra and Servant. We went to Christian rock concerts together and danced and sang and went bananas in the name of the Lord.

One day I commiserated with him, “It’s not right that Brother Jeff won’t let us listen to Christian rock.”

“There’s no such thing as Christian rock,” he said with a blank expression. “It’s all of the devil.” He didn’t elaborate, just looked at me in mute finality. I didn’t say anything because, in that moment, I realized that there was nothing to say. It didn’t matter if I was right or wrong about rock music, wearing shorts, playing cards, or whether the earth was round or flat. My friend’s mind was made up. The validity of my arguments was irrelevant. Brother Jeff had given an edict and my friend accepted it without question.

For the first time in my life, I felt nervous and alone at church. That might not have been so bad if I didn’t feel nervous and alone every place else.

* * *

On the first day of school in ninth grade, a cute girl cute called me “piggy” without provocation. I gave her a dirty look, but that night I lay in bed crying. Jeff had invaded my last safe haven, abandoning me to a place where pretty girls likened me to swine. Life couldn’t continue like this. Drastic times called for drastic measures.

First, I started taking the medication Acutane, a drug that eliminates acne with the gentleness of atomic radiation. I endured nausea, headaches, nosebleeds, and wisps of hair falling out until the medication ran its course and my face no longer resembled a map of the Himalayas. Next, I lost weight. I dropped fifty pounds in six months. Despite my girth, I’d always been strong and athletic. I could outrun kids half my size, and I could bench press 200 pounds by age fourteen. I lost weight mainly through running long distances and cutting out sweets. As a result, I lost more fat than I did muscle. By the last day of ninth grade, I had changed from an acne-covered behemoth into lean, muscular jock with unblemished skin.

That summer, I went to a Christian camp with one of my friends from church named Gordon Green. Gordy was a stud. He was good looking, smooth, and had no trouble with the ladies. On our first night at camp, Gordon spotted a brunette he found attractive. He dispatched one of our female friends to inform the young lady of his affections and ascertain her level of interest in him. Ten minutes later, our friend returned with the verdict.

“So, does she like me?”

“She says that you’re cute,” the emissary replied as a Casanova grin spread across Gordon’s face.

“But she thinks Steve is cuter.”

Gordon was speechless; I was thunderstruck.

“Could you repeat that?” I said, partly because I wanted to make sure I heard her right, but mostly because I just wanted to hear it again.

Despite the nice ego boost, I entered high school in the fall with my head down. I looked different but I still didn’t have many friends. The first day of high school is hard for anyone, but going through it alone is anxious drudgery. I zipped through the hallways avoiding eye contact with everyone. On my way to second period, someone grabbed my shoulder and spun me around.

“Lookin’ good, Simpson. Looks like you’ll be ready to wrestle this year,” said Mac Wood, a senior on the wrestling team with me. That was the first time he’d said anything nice to me.

“Thanks,” I said, wondering if I was supposed to say something cocky or funny instead.

“See you in practice,” he said and disappeared.

In third period Biology, a popular member of the football team took a seat next to me.

At lunch I sat down alone, but my friend Bill asked me to sit with him and four of his friends who’d never talked to me before. Later that week, we all played basketball at Bill’s house. By Christmas, we were sitting together on the bus. By springtime, we were hanging out over the weekend.

It was surreal. I figured that losing pounds and zits would make things easier I didn’t know that it would make me need church a whole lot less.

* * *

In March of my tenth grade year, I told my mother that I didn’t want to go to youth group anymore. She said that she didn’t care; I was going anyway.

“You don’t forsake the Body of Christ just because you don’t like one it’s parts. Is Jesus still the most important thing in your life?”

“Yes, mom,” I said, rolling my eyes.

“Following him isn’t always easy. Sometimes we have to show Christ’s love to people we don’t like.”

I knew she was right, but I didn’t like it. My father’s take on the situation made sticking with church a little easier.

“If you think Brother Jeff is wrong, you need to stick to your guns. If you leave youth group, that means he wins. You’ve let him chase you off. Stick around and stand up for what you believe.

Now that I could do, though perhaps not in the way Dad imagined.

That summer, I went on the youth mission trip as I had every year. Since Brother Jeff wouldn’t let us wear shorts, I boarded the bus wearing mesh, see-through sweat pants over my shorts, obeying the letter of the law while gleefully defying the spirit. When Jeff saw me, he just shook his head, frustrated but impotent because I’d conformed to his rules. I whispered ghost stories to the other kids just because it wasn’t allowed. I organized card games at the back of the bus. Whenever Brother Jeff wandered back, we’d chuck the Jacks and Queens, whip out a deck of Uno, and beam at him like little cherubs. But the real coup de tat was smuggling rock and roll onto the bus.

I stuffed a bunch of socks with cassette tapes and hid them in the bottom of my luggage. Thus, the 1985 youth mission trip rolled out of town carrying every album by Queen and U2, along with a strong sampling of The Who, The Clash, Rush, Van Halen, and anything else that sounded like something Brother Jeff would hate. My buddy Gordon was the only person I told about it, which turned out to be a big mistake.

After eating lunch at a Cracker Barrell, we got back on the bus and discovered Gordon sitting in my seat holding my boom box. Ozzy Osbourne’s “Revelation Mother Earth” blasted out of the speakers at about 5,000 decibels. One of the adult volunteers told Gordon to turn it off. Gordon protested, saying that he thought the music sounded awesome. I shot Gordon a look that said, “I am going to kill you with my bare hands.” He turned the music off and apologized. Gordon didn’t rat me out, but he didn’t have to. It wasn’t hard for anyone to figure out who snuck Ozzy on bus.

When Brother Jeff found out, he gave me a look of contempt … and nothing more. I expected dire consequences, confiscation of my tapes at the minimum. But he didn’t do anything.

The next day, we had three hours to wander around in Jefferson City, Missouri. The place was filled with novelty shops, theme restaurants, and other attractions that teenagers live for. They also happened to have a palm reader, which piqued my interest.

At a Cub Scout Halloween party in second grade, somebody’s mom dressed up like a gypsy and read our palms. The whole thing was a joke, but the palm reader said something that stuck with me. She said I was going to marry a girl named Jenny. It just so happened that I’d had a crush on a girl named Jenny since seventh grade. Jenny was with me that day in Jefferson City as we passed a palm reader’s hut adorned with flashing astrological symbols.

I had told Jenny about the palm reader back was when I’d been fat and ugly. That was when she’d told me she liked me, “as a friend,” the label that every adolescent suitor regards as a curse. But things were different now. Jenny had been flirting with me lately. Maybe it was time to reintroduce the subject.

“Hey, Jenny, remember the story I told you about that palm reader saying I would marry a girl named Jenny,” I said, pointing to the palm reader’s hut.

Jenny flashed a feline grin and said, “I remember. Maybe you should get a second opinion.”

I needed nothing more. Without a second thought, I ducked in to the palm reader’s lair.

Five minutes later and five dollars poorer, I had no new information regarding the name of my bride to be. (For the record, my wife’s name is not Jenny and her parents never even considered that name.) I laughed it off as confirmation that palm reading was a bunch of hooey.

Since I have a big mouth, I told half a dozen people about the palm reader. Someone tattled. At our next stop, Brother Jeff and one of the volunteers cornered me. They took me into the sanctuary of the church that was putting us up for the night. Brother Jeff suggested we sit in the choir loft. It felt like being in the penalty box at a hockey game.

“Steve, the fact that you went to a palm reader grieves me, but I hate to say that I’m not surprised,” began Brother Jeff as the volunteer frowned and nodded in agreement. “I have sensed this sort of lawlessness in you from the first time we met almost three years ago. In those three years, things seem to have only gotten worse. What on earth gave you the notion of going to a palm reader?”

I told him the story about the gypsy at Cub Scouts and Jenny. I didn’t want to, but I thought Jeff would cut me some slack if I humiliated myself.

Jeff furrowed his brow and nodded.

“It’s all starting to make sense now. If you went to a palm reader in Cub Scouts, that would have opened you to demonic influence at a vulnerable age. That’s probably the reason you’re so obsessed with rock music. It explains your contentious nature.”

That just made me mad. I forgot about trying to get out of this unscathed.

“I told you that the palm reader at Cub Scouts was just a joke. I went to the palm reader today just as a stunt to impress Jenny. I promise you, Jeff, no demons were involved.”

“The Prince of Lies wants you to think that.”

I rolled my eyes. Bad move.

“You might not care about your own spiritual welfare, but I care about this youth group. You have opened the whole youth group to demonic oppression through this act. We have to intervene with prayer.”

So far Jeff had said nothing about calling my parents or sending me home. My worst fear was that he would make my parents come and take me home. This would result in nothing less than being thrown in a dungeon and forced to eat spiders until I was forty-five. So when Jeff told me that all he wanted to do is pray, my insides broke into applause. I let prudence prevail.

“Okay,” I said. “Let’s pray.”

We bowed our heads. Jeff and the volunteer were silent for a few seconds. Then they started doing that humming thing. Not speaking in tongues, just a lot of “Hmm . . . yes, lord . . .” When Jeff finally started to form complete sentences, I thought it might have been better to be sent home.

“Demon of divination, demon of rebellion, demon of contentiousness . . .”

Was he talking to me? I hoped that he was just using hyperbole and not-

“We cast you out of Stephen in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost and by the power of the blood of the Lamb.”

Oh. No. He. Didn’t.

“Dear Jesus we ask that, through the power of your precious blood, you release Stephen from demonic oppression and set him upon a righteous path. Bring him back into your glorious light and renew his heart and mind. Please build a hedge around this youth group. Send your angels to protect us from any demonic influence that this palm reader may have introduced.”

The volunteer said “Hmmm . . .” so many times that he sounded like a bathroom fan. I was trying not to scream, “Are you out of your mind?” at the top of my lungs. But, since I didn’t want go get pinned me to the floor and doused with Holy Water, I started saying my own silent prayer instead.

This is stupid, Lord. You know that I don’t have any demons inside me. I’m sorry for doing something wrong to impress a girl. I thought of it as a joke but I should have been more serious. But demons? You gotta be kidding me! I’ll tell you what, God. If I really am under demonic influence, make that clear to me right now. Give me a sign and I’ll go with this. I ask it in Jesus name.

I felt nothing. No physical, spiritual, or emotional signs that I was possessed. I felt convicted over committing a sin. I even felt bad about upsetting Brother Jeff. Other than that, nothing. I stopped praying and returned my attention to Jeff, who was still casting out demons.

Something started to freeze inside me. My anger drained away, replaced by cool apathy. I no longer wanted to debate Jeff. I didn’t even want to rebel against him. The absurdity of what was happening was too much. There was no way to change Jeff’s mind. The only sensible thing to do was stop caring.


* * *

In that moment, a cynic was born, but it’s not Brother Jeff’s fault. It’s mine.

I chose to handle my anger and pain by killing off the passion that created it. I had my nice, safe little Christian world and I threw a fit when someone changed things. I couldn’t handle it when I didn’t get my way. I couldn’t accept the fact things weren’t perfect anymore, so I made Brother Jeff the enemy. For years, well into adulthood, I imagined Brother Jeff as an evil despot who stomped on a vibrant faith with legalistic oppression. That’s what cynicism does—it splits the truth in half. In your preoccupation with the things that hurt you, you forget the things that nurtured you.

Cynicism begins as passion. This is especially true for Christians who fall in love with Jesus when they’re young. We give our lives to something beautiful and pure, believing that it will never be tarnished. We embrace our church and the warmth and love of its people. We experience spiritual highs that set us ablaze with fervor for Christ. We want to tell other people in hopes that discover this same joy. We pray, study the Bible, and become enraptured by our relationship with God and his church. For a little while, it’s like walking in Eden with God.

Then a serpent shows up and tells us about a fruit that will make us smarter. In a moment of selfishness and fear, we take a bite. Then everything changes. We see that the leaders we idealize are flawed and broken. We look around the garden and see hypocrisy and deceit. We see people twisting our beloved Scripture to bully people who disagree with them. People we love and trust hurt us, sometimes through malice, but more often weakness. Our peaceful, perfect garden becomes a forest filled with monsters, and we flee.

Beneath the surly and sarcastic exterior of a cynic lies a broken heart. Most cynics once believed in something with all their heart and mind. Then that same thing causes pain and disappointment. It’s so terrible that we vow never to let it happen again. We stop trusting, We suspect anyone who proclaims simple truths. We think that pat answers are for suckers, because we’ve been the sucker before. So we stop going to church or, if we do, we don’t get involved. We don’t just question religious authority, we mock it. We refuse to be vulnerable and embrace the love we once knew because we’re terrified that it will leave us again.

Oscar Wilde wrote,“A cynic is someone who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.” A cynic can tell you all about the painful cost of religion, but they no longer know the joy of depending on God and others. After I became a cynic, I still longed for the passion I once felt, but I refused to be fooled again. I refused to be hurt again.

The story about Brother Jeff is one-sided. I told the truth, but it was the cynical truth. I didn’t lie, but I didn’t tell you the whole story. I left out something really important, because it’s painful to think about: Brother Jeff loved me.

For years I imagined that our former leader, Brother Rob, was the one really cared for me. That’s not true. Brother Rob was great, but Jeff nurtured me more. Yes, we fought a lot, but Jeff took an incredible interest in my life. He was legalistic and stubborn, but there is no question that he cared about me. We didn’t always argue. We would talk about God, the Bible, or just chew the fat about topics that didn’t lead to an argument. Even when were fighting, Jeff invested time and energy in my life. The guy spent hours of his personal time debating a pimple-faced punk about music.

The guy was also a Bible scholar. He taught us things about early Christian history, Greek, and Hebrew that helped me see the Bible in the whole new light. He could give rousing, sincere sermons that inspired and convicted. Despite my anger at Brother Jeff’s rules, my knowledge and love of the Lord grew under his leadership.

And the guy was funny. He was a great practical joker with a lightening fast wit. He was open and gregarious most of the time. He even made fun of his appearance, saying that his red hair and freckled skin made him look like a reject from the Partridge Family. He could be cocky, but he could also show humility and confess his sins. For years, I didn’t allow myself to remember that. The cynic could never admit that his enemy was so friendly and so much fun. I was too busy judging him. In other words, I was too busy sinning against him.

I stopped going to youth group after the palm-reading/exorcism incident. I still attended Sunday morning services because my mother would have shaved her head otherwise. Then, in the spring of my junior year, I visited Methodist church down the road because a cute girl invited me. The youth group was almost identical to my old one—passionately evangelical, active, big choir, summer trips—except for Jeff’s rules. I got to listen to all the rock and roll I wanted, wear shorts, play cards, and nobody tried to pluck any demons out of me. My new youth pastor, Allen, was a wise and gentle mentor. He got past my suspicions, helped me assimilate into my new group, and became a trusted friend. He was exactly the kind of tender, listening leader that I needed to help me recover from the pain of losing the church of my childhood.

But I hadn’t heard the last of Brother Jeff. The summer between my junior and senior year, I got a letter from him, though I hadn’t seen him in months. In the letter, Brother Jeff asked me to return to youth group. His words bore no condemnation or judgment. He just said that things weren’t the same without me and he wanted me to come back. He invited me to go on the summer mission trip. He wrote, “Just call me up and say, ‘Jeff, I’m going.’ You don’t have to say anything more than that and you’ll be welcome to come. Otherwise, who’s going to ask the tough questions? Who’s going to keep me in line?”

Who’s going to keep me in line? This maniac was inviting the very thing that I thought he hated about me?

Jeff, I’m going. That’s all have to say? After so much strife, three words will set things right again?

Despite Jeff’s vulnerability and courage, his words rolled off me. I didn’t believe him. I couldn’t tolerate the idea that I was important to him. I couldn’t believe that I’d impacted his life. He drove me crazy, but he cared enough about me that I drove him crazy, too. That’s danger of passion. The things we love, the things that bring us the most joy, make us crazy. Whether it’s God, a person, a church, or a cause, to love something is to sacrifice peace. The world and all the people in it are broken. Love cannot exist without pain. I think this is what Jesus meant when he said, “I came not to bring peace but the sword” (Matthew 10:34). I doubt that he was war mongering or undercutting pacifism. Maybe he meant giving your life to something results in strife. You cannot have passion for something and be free from pain.

This was a lesson I would not learn for a very long time. I’m still not sure I get it. God’s tried to teach me again and again, but I have difficulty accepting it. But I’ve got to get used to it, because the other option is despair. It’s the way of the cynic, who sneers and makes a stone of his heart because passion is too dangerous. Being a Christian is supposed to be dangerous. It means being vulnerable, taking risks, and having communities of imperfect people. It means leaving our comfort zone and kissing it goodbye forever. Being a Christian means exchanging comfort for something so much better: joy. Comfort is nothing more than a lack of pain and aggravation. It’s about what isn’t there instead of what is. Joy comes from passion, love, and commitment to something and Someone bigger than you. Passion, love, and commitment come at a price (just ask Jesus), but it’s a price worth paying, because God’s joy provides a sense of meaning and a depth of feeling you can’t get any other way.

I never wrote Jeff back and I never saw him again. Caring was too difficult, so I stopped. I wasn’t willing to walk the dangerous path that leads to joy



Thursday, December 18, 2008

Thursday Thirteen #73: Christmas Questions


Thirteen Things about Christmas

This is from one of those "send to all your friends" emails... I picked 13 of the questions. Answer for yourself and play along.

1. Wrapping paper or gift bags? A little of both.



2. Real tree or Artificial? Artificial prelit. I'm all about the easy button.



3. When do you put up the tree? Sometime after Thanksgiving when the kids have nagged me to the point I just can't stand it anymore.



4. When do you take the tree down? When we get around to it. One year, I was so busy and stressed, it stayed up until March.



5. Do you like eggnog? The kids drink the stuff like milk. Non-alcoholic, of course.



6. Favorite gift received as a child? Now that's just sad. I honestly can't remember.



7. Do you have a nativity scene? A couple small ones.



8. Hardest person to buy for? My sister.



9. Easiest person to buy for? The kiddos. The hard part is not buying too much.


10. Mail or email Christmas cards? Depends on the year.



11. Worst Christmas gift you ever received? Let's not delve into my childhood traumas, okay?



12. Favorite Christmas Movie? Meet me in St. Louis.



13. When do you start shopping for Christmas? March




Get the Thursday Thirteen code here!


The purpose of the meme is to get to know everyone who participates a little bit better every Thursday. Visiting fellow Thirteeners is encouraged! If you participate, leave the link to your Thirteen in others' comments. It’s easy, and fun! Trackbacks, pings, comment links accepted!



Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Regifting Dilemma

I am very nearly done with my Christmas shopping. When I say very nearly, I mean that I have just a couple of gifts to buy. Namely for my sister and sister-in-law.

I should explain that they live about four hours away. My sister and I have not really gotten along very well, and frankly, from the conversations I have had with her, I can't say that we have all that much in common. Honestly, I don't even know what she'd want or not want.

Then we have my SIL. Nice young gal. Barely know her. In case you haven't figured it out, I don't exactly spend a lot of time in my hometown. From what I do know about her, the only things I can think of are things NOT to get her.

So today, my mom and I were talking about Christmas and how it stinks to buy presents for people just for the sake of buying them a present. It just seems to be completely misrepresenting the spirit of the season. And yet, we all do it. I will also admit to being one of those people who put a lot of energy and thought into the gifts I give. So it's killing me that I have no idea what to get them. I have asked around, as discreetly as possible, about what I could get them. Everyone faces the same dilemma.

Just a bit ago, I went downstairs to dig through my holiday junk and I found two of those Christmas bath sets. I realized that they were things I'd been given last year, and because I am allergic to most of that stuff, I put them aside to find someone to pass them on to. And then forgot. So here it is, Christmas, and I have to admit, I was tempted to take the easy way out and get them both bath sets or candles or something. And what pops up, unused, in my office? Two bath sets.

How rude would it be for me to give them to my sister and SIL as Christmas gifts?

If it's too rude, what should I do with them, because I will honestly never use them?

And if that idea isn't a good one, does anyone have any idea what I can give them? I really would like to give them something good, something thoughtful, and something that doesn't scream, "you obviously don't know me very well at all, do you?"

*sigh*

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Making a joyful noise

When I was a little girl, I loved reading the Psalms. I found a verse for just about everything. My favorite part of the Bible, though, was Psalm 100. Because I didn't grow up in a Christian home, the only Bible I had access to was my aunt's old King James version, and to this day, when it comes to my old favorites, it's the only one that feels right:

1Make a joyful noise unto the LORD, all ye lands.

2Serve the LORD with gladness: come before his presence with singing.

3Know ye that the LORD he is God: it is he that hath made us, and not we ourselves; we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.

4Enter into his gates with thanksgiving, and into his courts with praise: be thankful unto him, and bless his name.

5For the LORD is good; his mercy is everlasting; and his truth endureth to all generations.


As I'm sitting here today, in what will most likely be my last Panera day of the year with my friends Kay, Robbie, and Michele (who is leaving us, sniff sniff), we are surely making a joyful noise. Kay had me laughing so hard I couldn't breathe.

I just love how we can come together and just enjoy each other's presence, and in the midst of it, feel like the Lord is smiling down on us. He created this day, this moment, just for this. Love that!