Surprised by Ignorance

During my sophomore year at university, I met a freshman new to college life. His dad was a business-exec in a wealthy suburban neighborhood; my dad was the pastor of a poor church in a dodgy Detroit neighborhood. He studied performance violin; I studied physics.

His dad frequently traveled; my dad never missed family dinner. His older sisters taught him boys were naughty, and to flee from danger and dirt. My older brothers taught me that boys are fun, and that nothing is more fun than a set of bloody elbows and a pair of muddy trousers.

Nevertheless, a deep friendship was born. We played in racquetball matches, performed together in several small concerts, and sailed the Great Lakes. He asked my opinion when he switched majors from violin to computer science, and he gave me good advice when I switched from physics to history.

After school, we worked together for a few years. Then he took a job in Latin America and later in Europe. We saw each other infrequently, but our friendship always resurrected instantly.

After an absence of seven years, we met again a month ago, but he seemed distant and our former friendship felt aborted. We stumbled through family narratives, and we parted cordially. I emailed him the next day and suggested we not wait another seven years.

He didn’t respond.

It’s Only Stupid If

I recently heard a popular Christian speaker tell of a “rich spiritual exercise” he began practicing in secret. A friend of his encouraged him for years to try it, and for years he resisted. Finally, he gave it a shot. And he loves it.

The friend who introduced him to the spiritual practice is an Eastern Guru, and the exercises themselves are born out of Eastern Mysticism. At first, the popular speaker feared mixing eastern religion with Christianity, but afterward he spoke of the wonderful, inner-peace he feels. “The proof,” he preached, “is in the pudding; ‘We’ll know it by its fruit.’”

When he indulges in these practices, he asserts he “is more kind to himself, has learned to receive, has discovered his self-worth, grown in self-love,” and is “growing in heroic self-care.”

He concluded, “It’s only stupid if it doesn’t work.”

Christian Meditation

In February 1978, I sensed God call me to spend a summer volunteering on a kibbutz in Israel (a communal farm that provides room and board for six days of work). I asked friends to help me discern if I heard God correctly. Some were pretty sure it was from God, and others were certain it wasn’t. After deliberation, I decided to go, but not until April.

The deadline to register as a volunteer had passed a month earlier (this was in the days before internet, email, or fax; though indoor plumbing was making a splash). I still thought I heard God invite me to go, so I drained my savings and bought a plane ticket.

When I boarded a plane May 2nd, with my last $300 in my pocket, not a soul in Israel knew I was coming. And I had no idea what to do when I got there.

My itinerary took me from Detroit to London (where I visited friends), then to Athens for a two-hour layover, and finally to Tel Aviv. When I arrived in Athens, I discovered my two-hour layover wasn’t two hours but a day and two hours. The hostels were full and hotels cost about $100.

To kill time as I figured out a plan, I visited the famous Acropolis. While sitting on its steps, high above the city, some tourist-kids began to talk with me. It turned out that they were middle-school students from Israel on a field trip to Greece. (I was jealous: my Detroit field trips took me to its sewage and water-purification plant.) They introduced me to their chaperone.

That chaperone happened to be the world-wide head of the kibbutz volunteer program.

He heard my story, suggested the perfect kibbutz for my situation, gave me money for a taxi from Tel Aviv to his office, handwrote a letter for me to give his secretary, and invited me to have dinner and spend the night with him and his school kids.

Bulldozing Friendships

A couple years ago, I experienced a growing concern for a friend of mine. Something in his ministry approach seemed discordant with its purpose. I waited a few months before talking with him. (Who knows? Maybe my observations were wrong.) When a perfect example finally arose, I shared my unease.

But to say I “shared it” exaggerates my graciousness.

Instead, I bluntly confronted him. When he resisted, I pressed harder. Something inside me shouted “Stop!” while something else inside me desperately wanted to express my convictions, no matter the consequences.

I bulldozed aside objections, I plowed under every denial, and I railroaded home my points. And of course, the message was lost in its offensive delivery.

Two years later, I’m still working on repairing that relationship.

Willpower

In 1975, three friends and I participated in a 200-mile bicycle marathon on Belle Isle, an island-park owned by the city of Detroit. The course was a five-mile circuit which you circled forty times. Every time you passed the “finish line,” someone stamped your plastic vest. The race lasted twenty-four hours and the goal was to get forty stamps, representing 200 miles.

My friends and I were foolish high school boys (pardon my redundancy) and not one of us trained for the event. I had to borrow an “English racer” (with its tortuously narrow racing seat) because I didn’t even own a bike. Nevertheless, we decided to ride forty-one circuits (sort of a biker’s-dozen of 205 miles) just to say we did.

The race began at noon on a Saturday. We rode at a reasonable speed, and by midnight, we had biked 180 miles. We were ahead of schedule, a bit tired, and didn’t want to finish at 1:30 in the morning, so we decided to take a sleep-break.

The ground was wet and we hadn’t brought sleeping bags, so we found four plastic trash bags and curled up fetal-style for a nap. (Did I mention we were foolish high school boys?)

When we awoke, our legs had stiffened into baked pretzels; we could barely straighten them much less pedal a bike. One of us decided 180 miles was good enough and quit; two of us wobbled our way the final 20 miles; and one of us went the extra lap for 205 miles.

Later, the “biker’s-dozen” boy casually critiqued our failure by observing that we “just didn’t have the willpower” that he has.

Is Sunday School Destroying Our Kids?

Heroes of the faith r1

Several years ago I met with a woman distraught over her son’s rejection of Christianity.

She said, “I did everything I could to raise him right. I taught him to be like the ‘heroes of faith,’ with the faithfulness of Abraham, the goodness of Joseph, the pure heart of David, and the obedience of Esther.”

She wondered why he had rejected Christianity.

I wondered why it took him so long.

The Pig in London and the Lamb in Israel

When I was twenty years old, I wanted to spend a summer abroad, but as a college student I could barely afford ramen noodles. I found work on a communal farm in Israel. For a bit of manual labor, they provided me food, a room, ten dollars a month, and a pack of cigarettes a day. (It was the cigarettes that sold me.)

The weekend before I departed, I heard my first talk ever on being a man. On the way to Israel, I stopped in London to visit some friends. With the talk on manliness ringing in my ear, I swaggered, spat, and unsuccessfully tried to play the man.

During a two-hour dinner party in London, I was introduced to a young woman who promptly deemed me shallow, insincere, and stupid. (I skipped dessert so I could quit while I was ahead.)

A few years later she married a friend of mine, but her opinion of me was chiseled in stone. I once loaned her husband ten thousand dollars; and she suspected me of manipulation. But if I forgot to send him a birthday card, she felt my true colors were revealed.

To her, I was a jerk. And everything I did or said reinforced her judgment.