A lifetime seeking the shape of faithfulness

Now that I am older, I realize that a single question has animated me for my entire life. Even before I could put it into words the question haunted me, and I was able as an adult to find a vocation in which my job was to work on discerning answers. The question is: What is the shape of faithfulness in a broken world for the follower of Jesus? And I am aware that my interest—or obsession—with the question goes back to experiences I had as a child.

My earliest memory of explicitly wondering what living as a Christian should be like occurred when I was ten. My parents, sister and I were living in Minneapolis in a second-floor apartment three blocks from the public school I attended, Lowry Elementary. There were weekly all-school assemblies. We’d file into the gymnasium class by class, recite the Pledge, and then sit cross-legged on the floor. The school band played a song or two, teachers and administrators gave announcements, and some guest would give what I assume was supposed to be an inspirational talk. Finally, the part we were all waiting for, a few cartoons were shown—Bugs Bunny, Tom and Jerry, Donald Duck, Mighty Mouse, and occasionally my favorite, Foghorn Leghorn. I loved it. We didn’t have a television.

Then my father caught wind of it. I don’t know how. Perhaps there was some sort of notice from the school or perhaps my sister mentioned it. In any case, that week’s family devotions were on how a Christian must “keep oneself unstained from the world” 1 and how if anything could irrevocably stain one’s soul it was Hollywood.

My father wrote a note critical of the school administration for using cartoons, insisting I be excused from all future school assemblies. He gave me the note and told me to give it to my teacher. It was terribly confusing. I certainly didn’t want to be worldly since I had heard numerous dire sermons warning against it. On the other hand, I couldn’t imagine why the cartoons were so bad. I asked him about it, but my father’s reaction was such that I didn’t try that again. So, I asked him what I should say if someone asked why I couldn’t watch cartoons. He said I should say I was a Christian, and that non-Christians would respect me for it. That turned out to be untrue. My teachers and school administrators all were singularly unimpressed. Rather than respect they showed pity and concern. My classmates told me I was stupid. I felt stupid. I simply could not understand how or why Foghorn Leghorn was leading people—leading me—away from God. My father warned that being ashamed of Jesus meant God would reject me, and I began to worry that this might be my problem. I was certainly shamed to tears by my father’s disdainful smirk at my discomfort. “Be a man,” he told me as he disappeared into his study to read his Bible. “Be a man for Christ, not for the world.” I felt increasingly ashamed by my isolation and ridicule at school.

It was horribly confusing—and embarrassing. My teachers were puzzled by his objection and troubled at my reticence. I’m quite sure they sensed I was far too terrified of my father to lose the note on the way to school. I remember wondering whether this was what living like a Christian was all about. But he was my father, and insisted he spoke for God, and I heard the same message preached at our church. It was all I knew.

So, during the next school assembly I was sent to the library. It was embarrassing to be the only kid there, anticipating the ridicule I’d endure on the playground after school. The librarian told me to sit at one of the tables and placed a book in front of me. I read it, and when I was finished, she gave me another. I read that one, too. I don’t remember what books she gave me, but slowly over the weeks she helped me learn to hear stories. It was wonderful, and slowly transforming, though at the time I didn’t have the vocabulary to put what was happening into words. I regret I don’t remember the librarian’s name. I also don’t know whether she had a plan or strategy for what she was doing, but it worked. I bless her memory today and am forever grateful that she awakened my imagination.

The glory of imagination in story still makes me stop and wonder and want to read more. J. K. Rowling understands:

Though I personally will defend the value of bedtime stories to my last gasp, I have learned to value imagination in a much broader sense. Imagination is not only the uniquely human capacity to envision that which is not, and therefore the fount of all invention and innovation. In its arguably most transformative and revelatory capacity, it is the power that enables us to empathize with humans whose experiences we have never shared. 2

The irony of it all still amuses me. Cartoons, little animated stories starring Foghorn Leghorn were too worldly for us spiritual people so I was exiled to a room packed with more stories than you can shake a stick at—proof positive God’s providence has a sense of humor if I ever need one.

My memories of those hours in the library are faint except for the sense the stories gave me. They swept me away through space and time in adventures that went beyond anything I had dreamed possible. The stories, though not all great literature I’m sure, need no justification because opening new worlds to a child is justification enough. But I know now that far more than that was transpiring. I could never have verbalized it at the time, but something stirred deep within me, in my soul. Somehow the first seeds of a great truth were planted in my heart and imagination. The great truth is that only in story do we find meaning for life and reality, and this means that hearing a story—truly hearing it—is more mysterious than merely listening to the words on the printed page.

It was like listening in on different worlds and times, hearing of adventures beyond my imagining. And it forever changed my life. Now, I look back and realize that there was one more in the Lowry Elementary library with the librarian and myself. Only much later did I realize this was one of my earliest encounters with the third Person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit.

Still, at the time I wasn’t thinking about all of this. I didn’t have the maturity or wisdom for that. The question that troubled me at the time was simpler, more basic. Is this really what being faithful as a follower of Jesus is all about?

Photo credit: Photo by Mikhail Nilov (https://www.pexels.com/photo/a-boy-wearing-long-sleeves-sweater-pulling-his-hair-7929277/)