Thursday, July 05, 2007

A Wrinkle in Time... and A Strange Conversation



1993

The rain beat outside my window, the puddles glowing under the dim lights along the pathway around my dorm. A breeze wafted in through the screen, and I slipped my face close, enjoying the fresh scent of wet trees and cool autumn musk. It was hard to believe that I was even here, studying to be a minister. But then, a lot had changed in the past three years. After wondering what I was supposed to do for the longest time, at twenty-one, I’d finally figured it out. This was my list:

1. Finish school.
2. Work at a church.
3. Marry Tammy.
4. Start a family.
5. Move my way up the ranks until I became a Senior Pastor.

Despite my confidence in where I was headed, I felt funny tonight. Reciting my list didn't help, however.

“Who are you, Lord?” I whispered, listening as the rain dripped along the windowsill. “What am I doing here?”

Things had felt different all day, filled as I was with a strange sense of mystery and longing. I didn't understand it, but I didn't know what to do about it either.

I frowned at a bang from the hallway. Normally residence was pretty loud, but most of the guys had gone home this weekend, including my roommate. Just as well, I thought, I needed some time alone.

Another door banged shut, this time from farther down the hall. Then another. Maybe a couple of guys were still here, I thought. Odd that I couldn't hear any voices though. I slipped out of my room and headed down the hall.

“Hey, guys? Hey!”

No response. I called again, louder, but was met with an eerie silence. I could feel my heart thundering in my ears. Don’t be an idiot, nothing’s wrong! I forced myself to walk casually back to my room and stopped outside my door. Had I left the door…

I peered in the gap of the open door. What! I leaned back so hard I banged my head.

“Ow!”

“Hello.” The voice was deep but shaky.

I stepped inside my room. A man who looked to be in his early thirties was sitting on the bed. He had bags under his eyes, but his shaved head gleamed in the light. His shoulders and arms were thick, and he sat bent over as if a great weight pressed upong his back. There was something oddly familiar about him.

“Are you a Professor?” I asked finally.

"No."

"How did you get in here- Look, never mind. I don't mean to be rude, but I have a lot of work to do."

"You're not still street preaching are you?" He said.

"Of course I am."

"How many of your friends are Christians?"

"All of them of course. I live a clean lifestyle."

"Nice to see that you love everyone."

I could feel the vein in my neck start to throb.

"Hey, who are you? You can't just burst into my room-"

He smiled, and suddenly I recognized him. It was impossible. I wanted to say something, but what? There was no way this could happen.

“How’s Tammy?” He said.

He was looking at the white chalked “Tammy Rules” I’d scribbled across my vestibule the week before.

“She’s good.” I paused. “But you should know that...”

He squinted as if I’d hit him but didn’t say anything. He smiled at the pile of cafeteria cups near the door and turned his gaze to my computer.

“Have you guys started playing baseball yet?”

“Yeah! Just last week. Matt’s always over here.” I paused." So, you're me, right?"

I was sure that I’d been given some kind of a gift, a peek into the future. Or possible future. Or maybe it was just a dream.

“So, how old are you… am I?” I asked, finally.

“34.”

“Do I have a family?”

“No.”

“Am I married?”

“You were.”

I clenched my teeth together when I realized what he was saying. What!

“How could you do that?” I said finally, exploding. “I don’t care if it’s Tammy or not! Divorce is not an option! Only people without faith get divorced!” I was yelling, but couldn’t seem to stop myself.

He looked at me calmly, eyeing my clenched fists. A slow, sad smile spread across his face. I walked slowly to the windowsill as the blood ripped through my veins. What kind of man had I become? I shook my head to clear the cobwebs. I took a deep breath, slowly inhaling and exhaling, forcing myself to calm down. It wasn’t like this was written in stone. I could change it. God was on my side. I could do anything.

“Where do I live?”

“Ottawa.”

Ottawa? What was I doing way up there?

“Well, am I in ministry?”

“No.”

Suddenly another thought occurred to me. I felt my stomach tremble. I didn’t know how to phrase my question, or whether I wanted an honest answer.

“I’m only here for a short time, so if you have any questions, you better ask.” He said.

“Am- am I still a Christian? Do I still love God?”

He smiled.

“Yes. Very much.”

I shook my head. It didn’t make any sense. How could I still be a Christian if I was divorced? How could I love God so much and not be in full time ministry? He rose slowly to his feet and moved to the vestibule. He stared at the chalk and moved a hand towards it before abruptly dropping his arm.

“I-I don’t understand.” I said, finally. “I know what I’m supposed to do. So why… how… I don’t get it.”

“We make choices, Steve. Bad ones and good ones. Some people will tell you that everything happens for a reason. They're wrong. But sometimes God does need to take us to painful places to teach us things, because sometimes there’s no other way for us to learn. But make no mistake, we choose. Saying that it “all happens for a reason” is for people who believe in Fate, not God. It’s understandable, though.”
He sighed, his eyes glassy as if remembering a painful moment.
“People want to feel better about the hurts and bad choices they’ve made. But in the end, Fate provides little comfort. God asks us to face the consequences of our choices. He reminds us how much we are loved, and then shows us that tomorrow can be different, even with the scars.”

I didn’t understand what he was saying. Of course it was my choice. (Which is why I would never divorce my wife no matter how bad things were! Divorced people were a bunch of weak sinners with no faith. I was stronger than that, for heaven’s sake.)

He glanced up at the stack of evangelistic pamphlets on my desk. His eyes flashed as he grabbed the bunch of them and threw them in the garbage.

“Try relationships. Forget the street preaching.” He paused. “Time for me to go.”

He pulled open the door.

“Wait!” I grabbed his shoulder. “That’s it? Do you have any advice for me, or…”

“Guard your heart, Steve. Remember that every kindness and every act done for others sketches a permanent mark on your character. Every selfish act does the same. Always remember that God loves you, and that even in your darkest moments He will be there." He paused. "You're worried, and I understand that. But I think you'll like things at 34.”

“I still don’t understand. If I grow up to be you, than how can you help me?”

“I didn’t come for your sake.”

He slipped out and into the corridor before I could respond, but when I followed after him, the corridor was empty. It was quiet still, but the eerie silence had passed. I went back into my room and prayed for a while before going to bed. I pulled the pamphlets from the garbage. If this whole thing hadn’t been a dream, than what a disaster! In thirteen short years I’d become a soft, non evangelizing, divorcee who enjoyed hanging out with sinners. I grimaced and slipped back onto my knees.

Not if I could help it…

2007

The blue neon cross winked from across the treetops outside my balcony. I blinked, disoriented. Where was I? I stepped inside my apartment, which was filled with neatly piled boxes and books laying piles on the floor. I shook my head for a second and walked through my apartment until I was convinced that I was back in the present.

Had I been dreaming?

I kicked one of the boxes just to make sure it was real. My head felt fuzzy, and I stumbled towards the kitchen to put on some coffee. I waited until it perked and slowly added the condiments. I took the cup back onto the balcony. The night was clear, and the stars lay strewn across the blackened sky. I’d read an old saying once, about what the boy would think of the man he'd become. And tonight, for whatever reason, I’d met the boy I used to be. Unfortunately, he didn’t seem too happy about who he’d become.

I sipped my coffee and leaned back in my chair. It wasn’t about him, though, I knew that much. So much of our anxiety as an adult came from questions about our past, the choices we’d made. So many people expressed regret in their life, and so many seemed almost paralyzed by it. Including myself. The past year I’d found myself visiting and revisiting my choices over and over, at times growing so bitter and disillusioned as to wonder why I should bother with even trying to do the right thing. But looking back, I could see how often I forgot the good choices I’d made. And even in my bad decisions, while there were still scars, I could see the lesson. My younger self had looked at me with scorn when he’d learned I was divorced, but what he didn’t understand was how much my divorce had softened me, helped me to understand and love people around me. Only God could say for certain, but I was a different, kinder man than I’d ever been. While the divorce had left some painful scars, some of which might never heal, I’d learned some important things about myself. About others. About the Kingdom.

I stood and leaned against the balcony. Fate said that our choices were inevitable. But they weren’t, and anyone who thought about it for more than a minute figured that out. What kept coming to me about the strange conversation however was not the importance of our decisions, but rather our response to the consequences of those choices. It was one thing to get a divorce, but the lesson could only be found in our response to it. Family and relationships… sometimes things happened out of our control, but how did we respond?

I’d met a number of old friends from high school and college lately, and it was fascinating to see who they’d become. Some hadn’t changed a whole lot, some were doing well, and others seemed almost unrecognizable. Aging seemed to emphasize character, especially for those who’d grown bitter at life’s turns.

I sipped my coffee and glanced out at the cross. In two months I’d be back in school, once more preparing for the ministry. I wondered what I’d do if an older version of myself paid a visit? Would I be as angry and determined as the young man in the dorm room? I smiled as I suddenly realized the gift I’d been given.

I wasn’t sure where I was headed. I no longer had a five step plan. I hoped for things, a family, good friends, a chance to make a difference, but nothing concrete. More than ever though, I realized that I needed to make good choices, that I needed to be as unselfish as I could, that I needed to continually humble myself before God and ask for His wisdom.

I smiled at the cross twinkling in the darkness and headed back inside. There was a time I wanted the security of knowing exactly how my life would turn out. I wanted the suburban bliss of religious surety. Not anymore. Maybe things would’ve been better if I hadn’t made certain choices, if I hadn’t done certain things, but I couldn’t go back and change my life.

Over the past five years I’d grown to appreciate the mystery and fullness of God in a way I’d never known, and so while I still had regrets, for one night at least, my anxiety was gone.
I left the balcony door open as I went back into the kitchen to refill my cup. I’d never know or understand everything about my past, and I had no clue what tomorrow would bring, but I still had today. And for now at least, it was enough.

May God show us that while we can not undo the past, we can still get the healing we need. That while tomorrow is always a result of today’s choices, predictability is not promised along the narrow road of faith. And most important, that today is the day we are supposed to live in... and celebrate.

-Steve