My pastor suggested that we try writing our experiences with God out. This is my attempt.
The story starts off before I was even a glimmer in my father’s eye. My parents started planning out their family and decided that three kids was the right number for them. They gave birth to a girl. Swell. They gave birth to a boy. Things got iffy with him. The boy did not stick around for long. He died, my parents grieved, but eventually they tried again. Boy was born; this one was much healthier. Then it was my turn and I am still standing.
That may seem like just another part of life to others. To me, it gave me some purpose. If you read it a certain way, I was never supposed to be born. If that first guy had been a bit more resilient, I would have little cause to be here. If I was the one “chosen” to exist, then what if there is a reason for that? What if I have some role to play on this big dramatic stage?
(I also maintain that this created my love for alternate realities. In some other version of life, that second-born is doing just fine. Maybe he invented a cure for cancer and got us off fossil fuels. Somebody else would have gotten those jobs that I applied for. Somebody else would be taking care of my cat. What happens if somebody else got the seat on the airplane that I never rode on? I feel that my love for comics and science-fiction was prepared early on.)
Now, my family has always been Christian. It simply works for us. I am ninth-generation Quaker. “Birthright Quaker”, if you like folksy titles. Some family members like different versions of Christianity, but Quakerism works fine by me. Regardless, I grew up assuming that God existed, that Jesus loved me, and that my butt would be in an uncomfortable church pew every Sunday. (There are no comfortable pews; only varying degrees of uncomfortable-ness.)
I am sure it would be more interesting if I had some dramatic conversion anecdote, but I do not. No, the closest I came to that was when I was visiting my uncle’s family in Ohio. I still remember that bathroom. It was huge, right in the middle of the house with two different doors that access it. (A fact that still freaks me out. The odds of a person walking in on you with one door are bad enough, but two?!) There were swimsuits constantly draped from the shower rung and the bathtub; visible proof that the pool outside was waiting to be utilized at any moment.
That was the religious setting where I sought to reaffirm my faith.
“Hey God”, a quiet little seven year-old said. “We’re covered, right? I mean, I know I haven’t actually said the words or anything. That I haven’t technically asked you into my life or anything. But we’re good, right? I mean, yeah? Do I have to come out and say that you are in charge? Do we get along? I could do it now? Maybe I should?”
The session was Informal, to say the least. So informal, that when I was back in that same house a year or two later, still with towels and bathing suits hanging to and fro, I felt the need to re-double check. “Last time covered it, right? No loopholes? We’re fine? Right? I mean, yeah?” I still tend to obsess over details. Poor kid.
Childhood was pretty Rockwellian. (Rockwellesque? Akin to a Rockwell state of being?) Monday through Friday I went to school and read as much as I could. Got to know libraries really well. Came home and watched cartoons. Tormented my brother and sister. The usual upbringing.
I went to Sunday School, but even back then, the Picture Bible appealed to me much more than the regular version. And I always perked up during parables. I love parables. If you want me to learn something, take a page from Aesop and wrap it in a narrative. Wars and selecting different kings and rules about how to make a temple? I could not have cared less. But man, talk to me about a seed that was dropped in four different locations? You have got a captive audience.
I never had a great crisis of faith. When you figure out that you could have easily not been born, you develop a strong belief in that old cliché, “Everything happens for a reason”. I know many folks find that phrase to be trite. They think it is something that people say when they do not have any better response to a hard situation.
It works for me. Always has. I usually do not have any idea what the reason is, but I buy that there is one. If I look at things long enough, I tend to find some sort of possible logic hiding in the corners.
However, I still had my typical teenager phase. Mom had a hard time with me in junior high. I had friends, sure. But I had a hard time fitting in. I always felt like I was somewhere in-between. I could run fast enough to be with the athletic crowd, but I did not want to do sports. I liked the nerdy crowd, but I could not bring myself to play Dungeons & Dragons or Magic: The Gathering. I grew up around computers, but after an hour or two I was bored with any game. I was comfortable enough to fake a good fit, but I never really felt comfortable in groups. (To this day, I still prefer one-on-ones.)
When you do not feel like you fit, you feel like a freak. Like something is wrong with you. And I was not in the mood for, “Everything happens for a reason”. Over the years though, I had kept on decent terms with my mom. If she wanted to take me grocery shopping, I was willing to tag along. Which is apparently, is how I got sorted out.
As my mom tells it, we were walking through the store. I believe it was around the cereal aisle. (Back when they were allowed to put toys in the cereal. The good times.) I saw a person in a wheelchair and I got very quiet. I think they had some sort of developmental disability. We had a similar person at our church, one who could barely walk and had some slurring in her speech. I grew up with kids that had physical setbacks in school. Yet this person in the aisle stood out to me that day.
I imagine that it was in the car after we had loaded the groceries in and we were about to go home. At some point, I commented, very softly to my mom, “God made them different on the outside like He made me different on the inside.”
After that, junior high-Philip was much less of a twerp. It was harder to be upset with God for making you weird when you receive a reminder that it was intentional.
The funny thing is, my acceptance as being, “different” caused some frustration. While I was in high school, we were seated at the dinner table. A relative asked, in a bit of a huff, “Why can’t you just be like normal kids?” I was about seventeen at the time, so my response was, “Because being normal would mean staying out partying or making out with strangers.” I knew who I was and I was fine with it.
High school, which as every teen-flick will tell you, is usually about partying, rebelling, and making big speeches before you score the winning goal. I spent it reading. Yes, I always had a friend or two. But it was so much more interesting to watch the drama unfold before me. I saw the school-couple yelling and fighting in front of their friends during lunch break. I saw one kid punch another and I went to grab a staff member. If I could find a teacher willing to let me sit in their classroom and read the lunch time away, then terrific. If not, then I would find some corner and try to keep my book dry in the rain.
Then, in a story that would take too long to tell here, I got sucked into theatre. You want people watching? Hang out with drama kids. The vying for the same roles, the swooning over those dreamy actors that always invoked stage-crushes, the inevitable coupling. I just sat on top of the scaffolding or kept my ears tuned to noises from backstage. I think I had all of two minutes of “performing” in over two years of high school theatre. Mostly, I spent the time having fun and figuring out what I liked.
There were always a few raised eyebrows when we got too deep into things. I had a hard time believing folks wanted to kiss on stage. I thought kissing someone you were not dating was madness. I shirked parties. They took place on Saturday nights, I had church Sunday morning. The fact I was not invited to all that many made it easier too. 😉 And the time when the group of seven gals performed a scene from Cabaret; well my poor little brain almost exploded. What were they doing!?
Around that same time, my brother tried out a different church. He liked his Christianity served with a little different flavor, he had a bike and a driver’s license; off he went. At some point, it was decided that I should be in charge of running sound. I never professed any proficiency for running sound, but I had sat in the booth with my brother. “Surely you know what you’re doing? Just give it your best!” Uh… okay. If nothing else, it gave me a reason to make sure I went to church every week.
Eventually, the threat of college loomed. My parents were moving to Pennsylvania. I applied at the two colleges I liked and both were kind enough to accept me. I could play it safe, stick with my brother and attend the University of Washington and stay in the area that I was familiar with, or I could branch out, be my own person, and go to George Fox University.
Remember those parallel worlds and alternate realities we talked about earlier? I am convinced that there is a version of me that went to George Fox and loved it. A person who majored in Communcations, got to log some microphone time in a real sound booth, and fell in love with a cute Christian cohort. They held hands around campus, crammed hard for their challenging classes, and eventually graduated and settled down together around Newberg, Oregon.
Back in this world, I took the easy way out. I shared an apartment with my brother so my responsibilities would be cut in half. I worked a job that my youth pastor was kind enough to hire me for. I played it safe. Looking back on all those times I wanted to skip class? All the times I asked myself why I was on a campus of 40,000 and classes of 300? I still think UW was probably not the school for me. But I had my support system, I kept going to my same church; I survived.
I kept doing things for God that I thought were right for me. At some point in my teenage life, I took the Sabbath more seriously than most. When I applied for jobs, I told them I would not work on Sundays. Throughout college, I stuck to my notions and never did homework on a Sunday. I patronized a restaurant once or twice, but did not buy anything. (I later realized that was silly. The staff still had to wait on the person in that chair. Therefore I was making them work. Eventually I stopped going to restaurants on Sunday altogether. That fit my sense of right better.) If I expected to have a day off from work, a day to focus on God and the important things in life, then who I was to make other people work on Sundays?
College was also when I started to look around and see females. Hey, I was still a teenager. Why sit there and only observe cute people when one could go up and talk to them? Maybe, and here is a crazy thought, interact with them?
Those poor gals. I learned a lot from those years of observing other couples, but I did not learn enough. One limitation was that I would only allow myself to be interested in Christian women. Not that non-Christians are not worth my time. The problem is a matter of common ground. If you want a family, you want to marry someone who also wants a family. If you want someone to travel with, the person you hitch your wagon to should probably already possess a passport. And if God is important to your life, it makes sense to find someone who goes to church each Sunday.
So I looked. And I looked. And I looked. And I thought I found? Maybe? Nope. Keep looking. And looking. And what about this one? She seems like… It could be. She sure is pretty. And smart. And kind. Nope. Hard nope. Okay. Maybe if I keep looking?
I tried everything. I could make a checklist for you. Online websites? Tried it. Blind dates arranged by mutual friends? Failure. Different online website? Twice. Three times. No result. A blind dating service? No dice. A different blind dating service? Goose egg.
After college I found myself rather restless in church. Whenever I told people that I wanted to meet someone who was Christian, they would offer up, “Maybe you can meet someone through your church?” Yeah. I tried that. Nope. And then somebody said it.
“Well maybe you should try going to a different church?”
I resisted that phrase for as long as possible. Quakerism works for me. There are not that many Quaker churches around. Why separate myself from what I love unless I am guaranteed something better?
As any assemblage of depressed drinkers in a bar will tell you, loneliness makes you do some crazy things. So I went on a tour of different churches. I tried out my brother’s family church. I went to the historic cathedral-church. I visited the uber-stringent, wallow-in-our-sins church. Finally, I settled for the trendy church. I still went to my Quaker church once a month or so. Yet the church I spent the most time at was the one attended by the college crowd, the cool couples with their spiffy cars, peppy music, and a very charismatic pastor.
And it was fine. There were several hundred people at that church. I enjoyed the services well enough. I felt God at work there. I asked out a gal or two. The results left me wanting. I went there for my God-fix, yes. However I was also after a romantic entanglement. Yet I could barely get a social entanglement. Of any kind. I was there for two to three years and when I stopped going because I felt no connection to community. I went to a bible study for two years. I went to a church retreat for a weekend. No deep bonds were forged.
However whenever I went to my Quaker church, people expressed joy at seeing me. They told me they missed me. I felt welcome every time that I walked through the doors. I could have made the other church work. Maybe I should have tried to engage more people. But I had this group of people working overtime to love me. Why stay away from them any longer?
That is where I find myself right now. I fit in at my church, even if there are not throngs of people dying to spend time with me. We get along. We help each other out. We pray for each other. My church feels like home. I may not be madly in love with any attractive females, but most days I get by just fine.
I know God still has plans for me. I know all those years I spent observing and processing were partially so that I can understand people. I can relate to them better and have some notion of the situations that they are in. And I know that I am supposed to take my love of stories and do lots of writing. My purpose is to collect stories, to share them, to listen to them, and to write them. As with most stories I come across or share, I continue to believe that everything happens for a reason.