Shortly after that, it was time for the school year to start but either right before or right after it started, an event occurred at PUC. An Adventist TV station, 3 Angels Broadcasting Network, came to PUC where they were going to do a show in which the main presentation was a question and answer period. Three students were chosen to be on the panel along with some faculty: Jon Thorton, Lindsey Abston, and myself.
Jon Thornton was a guy who was full of life and energy and personality. He had this moppy afro that was very large and a smile that lit up well beyond the room. (Ironically, because some older Adventists can be offended at things like hair, they felt the need to address his hair right at the beginning of the broadcast by suggesting that maybe he should give some of his hair to Doug Bachelor, the bald host.) Lindsey was the definition of reasonable conservative. By and large, she always took the extreme tradition position that the right branch of the church espoused but she did it with such kindness and such a gentle demeanor that she highlighted just how compassion served causes better than “just being right.”
If I remember right, it was an argument about faith and reason. I am not sure why I was chosen but I suspect it had something to do with the fact that I was quickly developing into a poster boy for the department. They were willing to bypass my argumentative nature because I was the married kid who was already actively pastoring a church. My personality was secondary to what I was accomplishing.
Lindsey and I had been friends for a while at this time and I remember expressing shock at the invitation. She rolled her eyes and pointed out that I worked too hard at being oppositional but I was doing things the department wanted and that I was eloquent and surely that helped. The struggles I was having were both intensely private and public simultaneously. I asked the questions publicly but because people know that my nature was both inquisitive and at times oppositional, it went unnoticed. The private part that I didn’t share with anyone that I should have were things like the fact that my call to ministry had started to feel hollow, that I was collapsing on bathroom floors just so I could hide and breathe.
The event was relatively simple and no one said anything particularly controversial. However, several administration, teachers and various people I didn’t know made it clear to me afterwards that they thought I had done a good job and they were glad that I was becoming a pastor. It was then that I realized that while I had achieved poster boy status that I was unclear as to whether or not I wanted it. Like any other human being, I was glad to receive attention and truth be told my personality was such that being the center of such a massive one was at some point well received. But things were starting to crack and the doubts I expressed to Lindsey were far deeper than I was letting most people know.
None of these struggles were to say that I was suddenly some mopy guy. One of the best parts of being me is that I almost always wake up on the right side of the bed, sleep well and wake up in a good mood ready to face the day no matter what yesterday was. There were just moments, hours where simple things overwhelmed me. People who weren’t of the faith didn’t bother me much and I’d begun to lose track or think of them as lost souls and sometimes more as people who disagree with me. More often, people of the faith bothered me plenty and this was heavy on me. I thought that if I was truly in love with God, I’d want His message to succeed and realize that He used us imperfect vessels to promote it. Perhaps, if I’d been a little more grown up I would have realized that sometimes family bothers us in a way that people outside of family never can. The church and his people were my family and that may well have been all that was going on but that wasn’t registering.
Faith and reality were messing with me on various points and I wasn’t finding a good balance. In the middle of this, there was a big controversy because someone sent a very “accept gay people as they are” email with an attached local website and a racy picture to almost every single student. This was sent from a nonexistent anonymous email address. Homosexuality always being what it is among conservative Christians, gossip spread like wildfire. I don’t recall how I pulled off getting contact info for the guy but I interviewed him for the paper (but even then he wouldn’t tell me his identity). I drew quite a bit of slack from some of the theology professors when the interview and the preceding and following paragraphs didn’t have any condemnation of “the lifestyle.” It was one of the kindest compliments I’ve received when after talking to the website creator, he said that when we’d interacted in person I had never seemed homophobic to him and had always been incredibly kind to him. Lindsey and I had a few conversations about this entire event. She was always willing to consider opposing point of views and I even convinced her that while we could believe homosexuality was wrong that didn’t necessarily need to be the position that one held about it being legal and that it certainly didn’t necessitate us being mean. She agreed with me and to this day delicately, kindly and innocently still holds that gay marriage, while wrong, should be legal.
One of the student association officers that year had also gotten himself into a big sex scandal that year. This was on a very low key scale and chaplain Mike Dunn had known about it and had been helpful in keeping it private and allowing the officer to stay in place. It was all between consenting adults and so it was brushed under the rug and the officer served his term out well. I went back and forth on how much patience we should have with someone’s humanity about this. While I wasn’t completely certain or comfortable about the way it was handled, I ultimately supported what was done.
From having been incredibly guilt ridden about my own girl issues in high school and college including those with my own wife (before she was my wife), I had much sympathy for these scenarios and similar ones like the one with the church board member who had made a mistake or the things that had gone in England. They bothered me some because this was how I’d been raised but I also had decided that our better focus was on things like humanitarian, community and social type services and so I had started shrugging them off. I think the frank truth was that I’d failed to face adulthood properly in the bubble that had been my life.
Still, even as I argued with myself about my faith and questioned where God was, I could have interpreted some events differently. It was during that time that I picked up another hitchhiker that could have almost get me back to reality but I wasn’t paying enough attention. He was just a kid, 18 or so and essentially was homeless because he wasn’t getting along with his parents. He had a job but was sleeping wherever he could make a place. This was Napa Valley after all and the weather there is fairly reasonable but nonetheless after we picked him up from hitchhiking and he told us his story, he came and lived with us on and off on various days around this time. He was there for a good part of two or three weeks. He left and came back a few days later to thank us profoundly. I used that story for the next couple of sermons about showing gratefulness, keying in on how I had picked up many hitchhikers but this was the first one to be this grateful. I even compared him to the single leper who came back to say thank you to Jesus when he had healed ten. But the story wasn’t over: a couple of weeks later, when it was slightly chilly one night, he showed up at our doorstep and asked if he could stay again, a pattern he would repeat for a while. We allowed him to do so, in fact, it had gotten to where we left him at the house alone. This continued to do so until one day he disappeared very early one morning with $250 with him. I wasn’t bothered much by this and figured he needed it worse than I did.
I suppose in some ways things like this were shouting for my attention that everything was okay but I was focused on the wrong things and making big deals out of tiny ones. And I was becoming the type of person that I’ve grown up be most annoyed by, a victim of one’s own life where rather than take the bull by the horns you internalize some of it and complain about some of it but don’t deal with enough of it honestly.
Yet in the midst of all of this with the struggles I was having with the church, I was also having a hard time connecting to God. Both then and now, these were very closely associated in my head. There was a rock that you had to take a ten minute walk to that oversaw the entire valley. It was a scene that was inspiring. Jorge Gurrola had taken me for the first time there blindfolded shortly before getting me involved with Lighthouse. I had gotten in the habit of going there alone because it was a place where it felt like you heard the voice of God. By that time though I’d started going out there, it had become just a pretty scene and nothing more. Why did it seem I was trying to connect to God harder than it appeared he was trying to connect with me. I couldn’t quite figure out what was wrong: what if you achieved your life’s dream by the time you were 21 and it was wearing you out instead of feeding you? In fact I grew so frustrated at everything that was coming that one day I simply wrote out this essay to myself how I just wished for a life more ordinary. Couldn’t I just be more normal, just be a college student? But it was too late for that, you couldn’t just turn that off. I couldn’t suddenly accept the invitations to the parties and go drinking or goof off in the way that many of my classmates did. I’d made my bed and I needed to lay down in it.