In the midst of all this, I got a reprieve away from pastoring in the form of a summer abroad. I was required by the honors program to spend some classes studying somewhere else; that particular summer the program had arranged for it to be in England and the class I was studying was entitled Christianity.
The group I was studying with was now the third honors groups I had been a part of with since I had taken a year out and most people did the abroad class between their sophomore and junior year. I knew almost no one or what perspective it was but in my very shy way I would be arguing with them in class in no time at all. We would argue about many things that summer, people were more discussion centered than in almost any class I had ever been in. One of the more memorable moments was when in an argument about various religions all being windows into God, one fellow theology major, Godfrey Miranda, eloquently stated “they may be windows but Jesus Christ is the door.” It’s always great when one can be that witty in defense of truth.
Interestingly enough, the whole adventure was a very different approach to religion than I had ever quite encountered. I was well aware that there were plenty of the students back at PUC who regularly skipped church and that perhaps a few of the staff did as well but I was not prepared for how different this summer would be than the rest of my Christian experience both by those within the program and those within the country of England.
The whole thing began with the teachers and I not having coordinated very well on how I would get to Newbold itself since I had a flight that arrived after all public transportation left. This ended up with me arriving at 1:00 in the morning and making friends with a crew that was working on some repairs. They were going to get off work at 7:00 AM and after hanging out and chatting and trading jokes and stories for a few hours (I was waiting till the subway system was going to get going again), they offered to give me a ride to the college, about a 30-40 mile drive. They were incredibly generous both in that and in sharing their tea and cookies with a complete stranger. What was incredibly fascinating was both how hostile they were both to religion and to Christians. The fact that I was attending a class on Christianity alone was almost enough to get the relationship to be a nonstarter. But after a few jokes and a clear understanding that the conversation was over if I brought up religion, we were able to connect. I would soon learn from making friends with a few British people that the attitude towards religion at large was skeptical at best and most commonly rather dismissive.
The Honors class as a whole ended up fitting well into that atmosphere. Because of weekend activities planned out by a few of us or by the class itself, it became such that essentially no one went to church on the weekend even when they were there. This didn’t just include the students but also the staff. They were happy sleeping in. Because of weekend trips and partly due to being absorbed into that culture, while I did attend church, that summer in England was probably the least consistently I did so.
Some of them were willing to argue about religion and discuss it and deal with the baggage that some of their parents had handed them but most were happy to shrug it off. I did have some intense discussions with people; one of them, Juliette, was adamantly against religion. A few years later she more readily accepted when a job offer came open at PUC. Another girl Christi would also argue with me though she mostly thought Christianity was more restrictive than reasonable. Eventually, she married someone who wanted to be a missionary and she also became more receptive to church teaching. Intriguingly enough, my ability to try to shrug off some of the minors in order to pursue a higher good was well what they may have been doing later in life. It was something that I couldn't decide whether or not I was disappionted with them in years later.
Another person who I argued with frequently then was Stephanie. This was not so much about me but more about her. She had dated this guy on and off since high school. The relationship seemed full of drama and, at least to me, dread but she kept going back to him or he to her, I’m not sure. We would argue and I never quite wrapped my mind around why she was so committed to this person when she was so great and there were so many more out there. She made an argument then that I didn’t understand till years later that connections with that much history and that much sentiment had a power that wasn’t easily undone and should not be easily thrown away. She would eventually marry the guy and they are still married to this day.
But these were not the only things that messed with the reality that I’d so comfortably inhabited at that point. People would go out drinking and come back to the dorm fairly buzzed if not outright drunk. There was a small group of people who were doing quite a bit of sexual experimentation in various states of undress in the dorm. I still cannot recall to this day why during one of those sessions they actually opened the door when I knocked for one of them (I didn’t know what was going on when I knocked). And when I say a small group people were in experimentation I mean they were experimenting as a small group (4 or 5 at a time). Shannon would spend some time there during that summer with me (originally she wasn’t going to but we got a last minute ticket because I couldn’t live with the fact that I would be in a foreign country without my wife). While Shannon was there, part of that group even offered to have sex with Shannon and I jointly. I assumed she was kidding and laughed it off but had to politely decline when it was awkwardly obvious that they were sincere.
There was also an incredibly awkward scenario where many of us suspected that one of the teachers was very inappropriately hitting on one of the younger members of our group. Whether or not she recognized this wasn’t clear but she was having a hard time in life and it was questionable whether or not he was taking advantage of that.
This is not to say that I was completely innocent during this time: I engaged in one awkwardly risque but relatively innocent game of truth and dare during that time; I had a beer at a pub with some British folk (to this day, I don’t typically drink but I always drink whatever people buy for me, especially in foreign countries believing the greater sin to be that of rudeness rather than that of imbibing). What bothered me was the level they had taken it to, it was not something I had been that close to with people within the Adventist sphere. These were the honors students, bright, capable kids messing with reality. The awareness that people have a lot of growing up to do when they are 19-21 never sank in with me at that age since that’s hard for it to personally apply when you’re married at 20 and a paid pastor by 21. It wasn’t that I was more grown up than anyone else but I had learned to pretend like I was.
Those conversations with Juliette, Christi and Stephanie and those sexual experiments kept going through my head. It was about being honest with yourself about your own humanity and perhaps exploring it. They were intelligent people but I dismissed their arguments as excuses to have your own way. Ignore things and they will go away, fit into the mold and you will, change for the better purpose. I was almost twenty two years old and was convinced that this had worked for me so far.
I even sat one day in the middle of campus thinking of all of this would mean. I had made out once with a girl named Beth when broken up with Shannon. I hadn’t really had many feelings for her and I felt incredibly guilty about having used her. Natalie and I had made out once while I was dating Shannon after Shannon had already come to PUC (I’d confessed to the whole thing to Shannon the day after it happened and we painfully worked it out). While it not happening may have eased the pain, I had been willing to let an abortion happen. I was starting to see that perhaps my mother’s hiding of my father and his painful attempts to be part of my life which I had dismissed were so long were more of a damage than I realized. My questions about my faith and my role in agreeing with some simple but sometimes silly church were literally making me collapse onto the floor and exhale in a bathroom. But I couldn’t, or at least wouldn’t be honest about those things because I had now achieved the dream I’d pursued since I was six. I was a pastor and it was time to be an adult. Whatever issues I had were best left underground; whatever I needed to deny myself was best denied. One thing and one thing only mattered and I was there, becoming a pastor and proclaiming the return of Jesus. The idea that being completely human and completely faithful was possible did not enter into my imagination. No one was force feeding me anything but I had a vision of who and what I was supposed to be and nothing else mattered.
I left back from England ready to finish the summer off as a pastor and to head into my senior year of college. I had already achieved my dream of being a pastor in a sense and now I was going to head back to finish off two degrees, psychology and theology with Honors. What could possibly go wrong?