When I graduated from high school, I went off to college. I no longer lived with anyone interested in dragging me to church on Sundays. Very few of the folks I hung out with then, in fact, had any interest in visiting Sunday mornings at all. I guess we did embrace the holy notion of Sunday as a day of rest. I'm just not sure sleeping away entire Sabbath days to recover from long Saturday nights was what God had in mind when he issued that decree. But that's exactly what I did.
Since church was the only place I ever went to see or hear God, he and I no longer had the limited connection we once had. I didn't miss him. Not in the least. When I was young, I would sometimes fake an illness to get out of going to church. I can't tell you how relived I was on the rare occasions my parents fell for it - or simply decided not to battle me over it - and let me stay home. But now, I no longer needed an excuse. I could simply wake up and decide I'm not going to church today. It seemed too easy, but delightfully so.
Even though I didn't miss God, staying away from him came at a price. Guilt. Mostly because when I phoned my parents from school they would ask me if I was going to Mass. I don't remember if I told them the truth or lied and told them I was going, but that's irrelevant. The real source of my guilt was the reality that at the first sign of an opening in the door, the slightest glimpse of daylight and opportunity, I escaped from one of the fundamental values on which they had raised me. Just like that I dispatched the notion going to church was a critical piece of being a good and responsible person. I was suddenly more interested in my fun than my parents wishes and preparations for who I would be at that point in my life.
You'll never convince me God wasn't personally delivering my guilt trips over all that. God loves guilt trips, at least that's what I always believed. After all, we're talking about the ruler with the ultimate in incentives. Follow me and I'll give you heaven and eternal life, rebel, and off to hell you go. I had a good friend in those days who once said if heaven was all about choirs of angels singing to God, he wasn't sure if he really wanted to go. That made sense to me. So at that point in my life, fairly uncompelled by the suggestion that heaven could offer anything better than long Saturday nights, I didn't have much use for God. What I did have, though, was a growing resentment that he had planted a seed in me of wondering - would God one day turn the lights out on my long Saturday night parties only to flip them back on and blind me with flood lights mounted on the gates of hell.
Maybe I was being too hard on God. All I know is the further away I got away from living like my parents had taught me, and the more I departed from the lessons that were crammed down my church attending throat, the more something inside me gnawed away at my spirit of fun - the joy of me living for me. You may call that conscience. I do. But conscience is the thing in this world I have the hardest time writing off to an accident. Since I already confessed I believe God is responsible for the non-accidental creation of this universe, I blamed him for filling me with conscience and spoiling the good time I was having to work progressively harder to create for myself.
One of the things making it harder was college. So I eventually quit that, which gave me more time to drink and gamble and to steal from and cheat good friends and family to do both. Boy was life good.
A few years into this period of my life, when everyone around me knew I had hit rock bottom, but I was still bouncing around trying to make a trampoline out of it, I went to work for a carpenter. He built large houses; I hauled large loads of lumber and shingles around on my back all day to make building houses a little easier. That carpenter, he was always smiling. He was possibly the biggest smiler I had ever met. I assumed it was because I was carrying dry wall and he wasn't. Turns out there was more to it than that.
You see, I wasn't fond of how happy he was. Most days I showed up to work hung over and broke, which made grunt work miserable work. And I'm here to testify, I'm not 100% sure misery loves company, but it despises being within a thousand miles of joy. One day there were a few of us sitting against the two by fours of an unfinished wall inside the frame of a house we were working on, eating lunch. I was devouring a bag of chips and a 3 day old sandwich I bought at the 7-11 in town as I raced to make it to work on time that morning. I don't remember what the carpenter was eating, only that it must have been fresher than my lunch, because he joked and laughed while he ate. That was the day I couldn't take it any more.
So I asked him a question that would change my life. I know today I had family and friends who had been praying I would ask this question, or that I would somehow meet its answer. There's no question in my mind that the God who had been ushering an onslaught of guilt trips my way was now gladly driving me right up to the door of this answer. He likely drug the question out of my mouth, much like my parents used to drag me to church. I suppose it was his way of saying you're not done hearing what I have to say.
So I asked the carpenter, not really intending that he bear the brunt of my frustration with God, but he was the ever present happy one after all. I asked him - why are you always so happy?
For a question so presented from the overflowing complications and confusion in my own life, his answer flowed from a mysterious place of simplicity and calm. He said, "My happiness comes from my relationship with God."
That reply itself, right then and there, seemed like a joke. I respected the carpenter enough to hold my laughter in, but my insides couldn't have been more boisterous if they were sitting in the audience of a comedy club. I knew people who were pretty caught up in their bibles. They loved quoting verses to me like that would somehow help me absorb some meaning. But I'd never heard anyone talk about a relationship with God. Believe me, that sounded crazier than anything I'd ever heard out of the thumpiest of bible thumpers. Relationships were between husbands and wives, girlfriends and boyfriends. Friends and friends. Not between real live people and an invisible creator of the world.
In the days ahead, try as I might, I had a hard time shaking his claim. It wouldn't disappear as fast as some of the scriptures I'd heard and since forgotten. I became obsessed with finding a more logical reason for his persistent joy. I thought it was a possible result of his sobriety, but I'd met a lot of grumpy sober people. Over the weeks and months ahead, I began to ask him a little more about this relationship he had. Interrogate might be more appropriate. As he described it to me, I came to realize that relationship was as real to him as any other in his life, and I had witnessed firsthand how much he loved his wife and kids. To him, his relationship with God was more powerful than all others combined.
Today I know it was no accident I crossed paths with the carpenter at the most desperate time of my life, because suddenly I wanted some of what he had.
Some amazing things started happening in my life the day I quit telling the carpenter that and expressed it to God. And my words really were that simple - I didn't know any others: God, I want what the carpenter has. His response, well it was like he had been waiting at that door all my life ready to answer my request. Very much like my dad and mom and so many others had been waiting.
It was only the beginning, though. Then, like now, I continued to struggle with different areas of my life. (One of the great misconceptions about a relationship with God is that it is a path to a good life instead of a path to dealing with an inescapably challenging life). I didn't have a lick of understanding of what I was to do with this new relationship, only that I felt like it was supposed to be central to who I was and what I did. Then, several years down the road, through some pretty inexplicable circumstances, I became a father. And in an instant it all made perfect sense to me. I had no clue how much understanding my relationship with God would drive my desire and capacity for being a dad. I can't wait to share that with you next time when I conclude the dadverb pray.
(Continued in Part 3)