Fifty years ago this Saturday, I made a momentous decision. It has shaped my life ever since, directly during the first quarter century, and indirectly since. It was a more private decision than what is usually shared on this page, but half a century deserves a start, if only because I don’t expect to see another.
When my parents chose the northwest suburbs of Chicago to raise a family, they bought a house and got busy. In about 10 years, they had seven children. I was the first among them. Because they were doing things according to the book, they needed a church.
My parents liked to smoke, drink and play cards. The Methodists did not disapprove of them. Sunday school gave them a welcome break from raising children. The children’s choir took the children out of the house for a few more hours. And parish league basketball taught me early on that I better develop my mind.
As an elder, puberty hit me without any warning. My father had then abandoned family life. The church became a fixed point in my rapidly spinning world. Cheryl Noah’s mother has taken on the thankless task of teaching Sunday school to high school students. Renaming it a “youth group” didn’t help much.
Ms. Noah played the “Godspell” soundtrack for a week and we loved her energy and irreverence. Singing allowed us to express our exuberance without control, as if we had it. Sensing a strategy, she invited Andy Grimes and his guitar to guide our energy. We sang loudly. He showed us a film about Young Life summer camps.
I attended the Windy Gap summer camp in North Carolina in 1972. I knew it was religious, but it seemed like a good place to meet girls. I insert more logic than my 15-year-old brain could hold at the time. There were almost none. I didn’t have a Bible, although Jesus was a fascinating character to me.
On June 25, 1972, I asked Jesus to fill my heart and shape my life. He held his end of the bargain. I came back from camp and locked myself in my mother’s room, reading the Bible nonstop, only going out for meals. Christianity shaped every major decision I made thereafter – my college, my career, my marriage, my family, my daily habits.
Halfway through that half-century, I endured a divorce and found myself raising two teenagers on my own. They brought me to the limits of my ideological devotion. I tried and tried to stay true to my beliefs, but I couldn’t change my circumstances to match what I wanted out of life.
Was this surrender a movement of weakness or of strength? Both, I’m sure, but that’s a bad question. Every surrender seems overdue from one point of view and unnecessary from another. Reconciling these perspectives is no cowardly task, however necessary it has become.
Recent decades have been similarly shaped by faith and belief, but of a more lateral variety. You might argue – and I wouldn’t disagree – that horizontal commitment to community cannot be formed without first establishing vertical devotion to order and its source. Leaving the latter unnamed does not loosen its imperative.
I still maintain many of the disciplines that were forged in me before I could drive. I still set aside mornings for quiet reflection. I read and take notes. I reflect on the day ahead, looking for patterns and meaning. I think of those I will see or work with, taking care of them in absentia.
I am always inspired by the stories of Jesus, although I am rarely explicit about it. I am grateful for the community. I’m trying to hold my end of the bargain.