Miami Vicar

I returned for my second year of seminary a bit more prepared for the experience. I needed to take an overload of classes and also two classes the following summer to compensate for the term I had missed, but additional academic work was no worry for me. I also found a job off-campus. Five nights a week, from 3 p.m. to 11 p.m., I was a security guard for a major trucking firm I sat in a shack and checked truck trailers in and out of the lot. The job gave me time to do all my reading assignments and to write drafts of all my written assignments that I could then type back on campus. I even composed some creative writing of my own in that guard shack. When I started the job, I signed a paper indicating that any work I did while on company property belonged to the company. But no one has ever asked me for a copy of the papers I wrote that year or the short stories I composed.

In the dormitory, I found myself part of a group of friends. We visited and talked about classes and professors. We watched TV together. We played cards. We formed a temporary identity. For thirty years, since the campus had been designed and built, the dormitories had been designated only by letter names: A, B, C, and so on. We lived in Dorm C, but we decided that our building needed a real name. A paper was posted on the bulletin board, asking for suggestions. The only rule was that the name had to begin with the letter C. From the start, I knew that some name would appear just before the deadline that would be just right. Until that happened, the most popular candidate was Chemnitz. (Martin Chemnitz was a theologian a generation after Luther, one so important in expressing doctrine that he is often called “the second Martin.”) But the last-minute winner—and I never learned who proposed the name—was Clyde. I cut the appropriate letters out of black construction paper, laminated them, and put them after the C on the outside wall. A few days later, our neighbors to one side had renamed their dormitory Bonnie, while the neighbors to the other side chose the generic Dorm. Maintenance removed the names, but I replaced ours. Our identity of Clyde mattered, at least to me.

When we returned from vicarage for our final year on campus, the dormitories had all been named by the school’s Board of Directors. Bonnie was now Ambrose, Clyde was Athanasius, and Dorm was Jerome.

That year I also studied Spanish and associated myself with the students and faculty interested in missionary outreach to Spanish-speaking people in the United States. I had been around Hispanics for a while—during college I had a roommate from Columbia and, later, another from Venezuela. I was friends with people from Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. During my half-year away from campus, I had become close to a family of Mexican ancestry. Involving myself in outreach to Hispanics felt comfortable to me.

The seminary respected my choice and supported it. When the time came for me to be sent to a congregation for a one-year internship, or vicarage, I was sent to a dual-language congregation in Miami, Florida. I worked there with Spanish-speaking Lutherans, many of them from Cuba. I learned about cross-cultural ministry, about Cuban culture, and also a bit about politics. At times I was uncomfortable and felt myself outside of my comfort zone. But, then, I feel that way most days. I was given passing marks on my vicarage. After a two-week missionary trip into Mexico with a non-denominational Christian group, I returned to campus, ready for the final lap that would earn a Master of Divinity degree and a certification saying that I was qualified to be a Lutheran pastor. J.

Dropping out of school

When I began at seminary, there were several groups of friends on campus to which I did not belong. The tightest clan consisted of those students who had arrived during the summer for intensive instruction in New Testament Greek. Most of the students who had not gone to a Lutheran college were part of that group, but I had taken classes in Greek in college. Other groups of friends had been formed at the various Lutheran colleges. Those groups did not deliberately exclude me, but I did not have any of the instant connections with other students on campus that many other students enjoyed.

The seminary program, then and now, was a four-year program. In most cases, the third year was spent off-campus in a full-time internship within a congregation. (These interns are called vicars, a word that has different meanings for other Christian groups.) Each crop of students, therefore, was on campus at the same time as two other groups of students each year, but the other two groups would be different from one year to the next. Instead of semesters, the school year was divided into three terms of twelve weeks, as well as a summer term which was mostly set aside for catch-up work should any of the students have fallen behind their schedule.

The campus had been designed to resemble a European fishing village. The chapel stood on the highest part of the campus, with the student union and cafeteria next door. Two classroom buildings were connected by a walkway, making a U-shaped structure. Dormitories were scattered around the campus in various directions from the chapel-union-classroom complex. The dormitories were built to accommodate no more than twenty residents, and each had a lounge/meeting area with couches, chairs, a television set, and a fireplace. The campus also featured wide-open spaces, some of them forested, and an artificial lake below the chapel. One joke about the campus (which I have used productively at several congregations, especially in the south) was that students who arrived at the beginning of September had no hope of being able to walk on the lake, but after four or five months of study, most of us were able to do so easily.

I survived my first term of seminary, but rolling into the winter term, I felt increasingly alienated. Much of the feeling was my own fault—my awareness that I could not continue my college practice of disagreeing with professors and still expecting a good grade, my sense of being outside most of the campus clans and cliques, and the feeling that students and professors seemed always to be looking over their shoulders, cautious about saying anything theological that might be part of one of the synod-wide conflicts. In the midst of winter, I visited with the Dean of Students and asked permission to take a break, to withdraw from spring and summer classes, perhaps returning in the fall, perhaps not. His first question was if my need for a break was finances. He could find help if money was a problem. I told him no, I just needed time to adjust my thinking and to be sure that I wanted to continue what I had started. He granted permission. After completing the winter term, I packed my belongings into my car and headed home.

My parents were worried and frightened about my choice to take time off. They also did not like the fact that I choose not to return to their house. One of my friends had an apartment he was willing to share for a few months. I dropped off my stuff and made a short visit back to the college campus. Then I was ready, for the first time in more than sixteen years, to live a life that was not student life.

The summer between college graduation and the start of seminary, I had worked at a Christian publishing firm, telemarketing one of their magazines. That company was willing to have me back at the same job. The three previous summers, I had worked at Burger King. They were willing to have me back five evenings a week. The money was enough to meet my expenses and also save for the future, whether I would be returning to seminary or striking out in a new direction.

Three people guided my decision those spring and summer months. One was a coworker at the Christian publishing house. Rod came from Hawaii; he was of Japanese ancestry. He had done some amateur sumo wrestling and also had played football (offensive line) for the University of Hawaii. He had not been raised as a Christian. In fact, he had partied hard in college, took drugs, and lived a wild life. But then Rod was born again as a Christian. He became a pastor—and, as a pastor in Hawaii, he left his phone number at half a dozen bars. From time to time a bartender would call him to provide Christian counseling to a customer who was in emotional pain and needed help. Rod was working part-time while taking graduate classes at Wheaton College. He was also receiving medical care for damaged kidneys, a result of his pre-Christian adventures. Rod was excited about the opportunities he saw to serve the Lord. Every week, it seemed, he had a new dream of what he could do for the Church. Then, one week, Rod wasn’t at work any more. His kidney problems had shortened his life. Rod’s enthusiasm for Church work was inspiring. When he was gone, I was given one reason to find my place in the Church.

My boss, George, was also an inspiration. George had served various congregations over the years, Baptist and Mennonite and nondenominational. He also had medical challenges; in fact, he missed some time at work that summer due to a heart attack. But George had advice for me. He said that a ship sitting still in the water cannot be steered; a ship that is moving can be steered. I should ask God to steer, but I shouldn’t be afraid to move, trusting that if I was moving in the wrong direction, God would steer me toward the right direction.

At Burger King, a co-worker my age also provided some help. We did not talk religion with each other. But one day he told me that he wished he had known a pastor like me when he was younger. He had tried to talk with his pastor when he was a high school student, but their conversations had not collected. Paul said that I would be approachable as a pastor; I would be helpful to people like him.

Because of Paul and George and Rod, I ended the summer knowing that I would return to the seminary. No one could tell me where the journey would take me, but the journey was one that I needed to take. J.

Exegesis and hermeneutics

If I could send one message back in time to my younger self, entering seminary immediately after graduating college, I would advise that new seminary student to cultivate a relationship with one member of the seminary faculty and to be mentored by him. Knowing what I know today, two members of the faculty stand out as men that I wish had guided me during my student days. Both men are (and were then) very intelligent, bold in their theology without contradicting the faith of the Church—very Christian, very Biblical, very Lutheran, and very solid academically.

I was assigned a counselor from the faculty. He was one of the professors about whom my pastor had warned me: having gone straight from student to instructor, he had not spent time in the parish. Now, forty years later, he was continuing to lecture in the classroom, quite probably delivering the same lectures he had developed forty years earlier. They had been safe during the time of controversy and debate, so undoubtedly they remained safe at that time. Outside the classroom, he was sometimes referred to as “Doctor Sominex.” In my own spare time, I developed a different reaction to his teaching manner: I made him spokesman for a brand of beer that was unlike the common beers sold with energetic commercials. His beer was a calm beer, a soothing beer, a settling beer, sold with the motto, “because life is exciting enough already.”

Other members of the seminary faculty also clung to the tried-and-true methods of instruction, those that could not be challenged as liberal or progressive, since they were older than the hills. In Bible translation, these methods consisted of labeling words in the fashion of Aristotle. Words were first identified as nouns or verbs or adjectives, etc. (which is of course proper); then nouns were labeled by case: nominative, genitive, dative, accusative, and vocative (still proper). A third level of labels further framed the word. There were, for example, eighteen types of genitive case, including genitive of possession, genitive of source, genitive of material, and so forth. We were expected to memorize all the different kinds of genitives and datives and accusatives and to apply them to nouns as we translated the Bible into English.

In a similar way, we were expected to recognize figures of speech, or “tropes.” Most passages of the Bible were to be interpreted literally, but we were warned that the Bible sometimes uses tropes, and these also were to be matched to a list of labels: similes, metaphors, synecdoche, hyperbole, irony, and a dozen more. Old Testament prophecies of Christ were assumed to be rectilinear—pointing directly to Christ and having no other meaning—unless a New Testament passage specifically uses a different kind of interpretation for an Old Testament passage. (For example, in Galatians 4:21-31 Paul uses “typology” to discuss Hagar and Sarah and their sons as images of God’s people under Law (Hagar and her son) or under Promise (Sarah and her son). Paul, an apostle inspired by the Holy Spirit, was allowed to interpret a passage from Genesis in this way. We, as seminary students, were not.)

We were taught a few principles of hermeneutics (Bible interpretation): the simplest meaning was best, although that simplest meaning might be a trope rather than a literal interpretation. The Bible interprets itself—when we were puzzled by one passage of Scripture, our best resource was to find another passage of Scripture which discusses the same topic. Each passage of Scripture has only one meaning. We are not translating and interpreting God’s Word correctly when our version is open to multiple meanings. This last principle counters a medieval approach to hermeneutics which claims that each Bible passage contains four meanings: literal, allegorical, moral, and analogical. To find all these meanings in each passage, scholars frequently produced creative, tortured, and even bizarre interpretations of Bible passages. I have recently encountered a powerful Lutheran defense of this principle of only one meaning for each passage, written by a current Lutheran seminary professor. His defense follows the “slippery slope” argument, saying that if any passage is affirmed to have two or more meanings, then the entire Bible becomes subjective, with each reader feeling free to invent his or her own meaning to any passage of the Bible.
In one of my first assignments as a seminary student, I was required to translate a passage from the Gospel of John, chapter one, about the light and the darkness. The professor was particularly interested in our approach to one Greek word, “katalambano,” which has a range of meanings, including, “obtain, attain, come upon, overtake, attack, seize, catch, realize, understand, learn.” So John 1:5 reads, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not katelaben it.” Some translators favor, “the darkness has not understood it,” while others say, “the darkness has not overcome it.” I felt that John deliberately chose a word that covered a range of possibilities; if he wanted to be precise about understanding or about overcoming, other words were available to him. So my translation was, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overtaken it,” a translation which maintains both meanings. The professor said I was precisely wrong. Each Bible passage has one meaning and one meaning only, and the translator and interpreter must find that one meaning and express it clearly, without allowing any ambiguity or multiple meanings.

A second example, one which I did not have to discuss in seminary, is found in I Corinthians 7:9. Paul expresses his wish that all Christians could remained unmarried, like Paul, and focus their attention on Christian living, service to the Lord and his Church. But Paul acknowledges that not every Christian can keep his or her desire for marital relations unmet, so Paul permits marriage, saying, “It is better to marry than to burn.” Does he mean “to burn with passion” in this lifetime or “to burn in judgment” eternally for breaking a commandment? I would say that Paul skillfully includes both possibilities while addressing this complex topic. But, if every passage has one and only one meaning, then the translator and interpreter must select one or the other.

Jesus used the parable of the Good Samaritan to respond to the question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” The Bible as a whole shows that we cannot earn eternal life. It comes only as a gift from God, not a reward for anything we do. The very word “inherit” suggests that theme. But the usual Lutheran interpretation of this parable, in the context of its conversation, suggests that Jesus was revealing the strictness of God’s Law, forcing the man asking the question to learn that he could not inherit eternal life, because he could never reach God’s standards of perfection. The lesson concerns Law, not Promise. But one might notice that the Good Samaritan resembles Jesus. We are like mugging victims, lying helpless on the road, unable to rescue ourselves; Jesus comes and rescues us from our sins and from all evil, paying to grant us life. I have heard seminary professors say that, as hermeneutics, we must say that the parable is about Law, about God’s high standards which we cannot meet. They then say that, as preachers, we can indicate that the Good Samaritan reminds us of Jesus, and then we can proclaim the Gospel. This preserves the principle of one and only one meaning, but at the cost of making the Gospel seem like an afterthought, something the preacher adds to Jesus’ parable even though Jesus never intended that lesson and that application. To me, the responsible interpretation and application of this parable is both—Jesus shows the sternness of God’s Law, which we can never achieve, but he also shows how he fulfills the Law for us and rescues us by grace. In my opinion, this reading is faithful to Jesus’ explanation of why he told parables, found in Matthew 13:10-12 and parallel verses in Mark and in Luke.

As a professional theologian, I would acknowledge that most passages of the Bible have one and only one meaning. I would add that God can use language as skillfully as any human writer and that sometimes he has a double message in a single passage, whether a short verse like “it is better to marry than to burn” or a longer passage like the parable of the Good Samaritan. As a translator and interpreter usually treats the message of the Bible literally but also acknowledges and deals with tropes, so the translator and interpreter usually handles each passage of the Bible as containing a single message but also sees a few passages where the best interpretation contains more than one message.

Isaiah 7:14 is a controversial example. “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son”: who is this virgin? Matthew 1:22-23 says that this prophecy was fulfilled when Mary gave birth to Jesus. By the principles I was taught at the seminary, this is a rectilinear prophecy with one and only one meaning. Isaiah was talking about Mary, and that is all that can be said about his prophecy. Whether King Ahaz and others who heard the prophet speak this promise understood the doctrine of the virgin birth is immaterial. Mary was a virgin; she conceived and gave birth to Jesus, and Isaiah foretold that miracle seven hundred years before it happened. But what if Christian hermeneutics allowed this passage to have a second meaning, also centered upon Christ and his rescue mission? The promise of Isaiah was fulfilled in Mary’s pregnancy and delivery, yet something bigger was happening at the same time in the same event. Old Testament Israel and the New Testament Church are the people of God. In a frequent trope, the people of God are treated as a bride, with God (or Jesus) as husband. The wedding and marriage have not yet happened; that comes on the Day of the Lord at the dawn of the new creation. Old Testament Israel and the Church, taken together, are the virgin bride awaiting the coming of the bridegroom for the wedding. But, when the time was right, God sent his Son, born of a woman within the chosen people of God. He was born, not to any virgin, but to a virgin of Israel, making the Son a descendant and heir of Abraham and of David. Does any passage in Scripture endorse this reading of Isaiah 7 and Matthew 1? Look at Revelation 12, where a woman gives birth to a Son who is the promised Savior. This woman, the queen of heaven (clothed with the sun and with a crown of twelve stars) is protected in the wilderness. Is this woman, the mother of the Savior, the queen of heaven, to be seen only as Mary, or does this woman represent all the people of God, Old Testament Israel and the New Testament Church? I answer that she is, and that this picture from the last book of the Bible completes our understanding of the promise in Isaiah 7:14 as well as other Old Testament promises, including Genesis 3:15.

But, then, I never became a seminary professor. J.

Faith, reason, and politics in the Church

Creative tension between faith and reason has been part of philosophy and of religious thinking for many generations. Some thinkers demand that all propositions of faith be put to the test of reason and rejected if they fail that test. Others say that statements of faith rise above reason, that reason can be used to assemble clear understanding of the world and our place in it within the boundaries set by faith, but reason cannot judge those propositions upon which faith is founded. Few believers follow the stereotype of empty-headed followers who cling to faith but abandon reason. Many more people in the modern world cheat themselves by clinging to reason while abandoning the deeper truths known only by faith.

During the so-called Enlightenment, which followed the religious wars of the Reformation in Europe, some prominent philosophers and scientists advocated a life in which reason takes the lead and faith must follow. Wars continued to be fought in Europe and around the world, but they were fought for political reasons rather than religious reasons. Science had begun in medieval Europe as examination of God’s creation. Now some philosophers tried to separate science from religion. Over time, myths came into being featuring Galileo, Darwin, and other scientific figures who supposedly led an attack upon religious faith in general and Christian beliefs in particular. Christianity and organized religion were labeled enemies of knowledge, truth, and progress. On the defensive, Christian philosophy sometimes surrendered ground to the legions of Reason. Church leaders always include some who treat the Biblical accounts as metaphor and analogy, not to be treated literally. Among many branches of Christianity, this approach became more prominent, as theologians who proclaimed literal truth from the Bible were called “fundamentalists” and “bibliolaters” and were dismissed from serious theological discussion, pushed to the sides of the room and silenced in the conversation about reason, faith, and truth.

Christianity was very fluid in North America in the nineteenth century. Many branches of Christianity were imported from Europe during that century: Roman Catholics, Anglicans/Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Methodists, Lutherans, Mennonites, Friends/Quakers, and others. New variations of Christianity arose in the New World: Adventists, Churches of Christ, Latter Day Saints/Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and a bewildering array of Baptists and non-denominational sects. By the twentieth century, rapid transportation and communication allowed some scattered groups to congeal. Often, in the process of uniting assorted congregations and schools and theologians, theological compromises were accepted in the name of Christian unity. Frequently, these compromises included acceptance of European Biblical interpretation, which treated the Bible and its message scientifically and allegorically, casting away faith in a six-day creation, a world-wide flood, the crossing of the Red Sea, Jonah swallowed by a fish, and other Biblical accounts of miraculous events, times when God personally intervened in his creation for the sake of his chosen people.

Many Protestant Christians in North America continued attending the same congregations while their leadership carried them into what is called mainline Christianity—organizations that call themselves Christian, base their teachings upon the Bible, but also reject many sections of the Bible, being guided by reason first and faith second. Not only does mainline Protestant Christianity dismiss descriptions of miracles from the Biblical record; the same movement feels free also to edit out of the Bible any commandments or instructions that the surrounding world considers antiquated, old-fashioned, and not progressive. At times discussion of particular issues can become heated within these groups, but generally, sooner or later, the world’s leadership is followed by these groups, as faith-based thinking and living must surrender to world’s latest fashions and fads as set by human science and human reason.

 In most cases, smaller groups broke away from the mainline groups and formed associations of congregations that continued to teach and believe the Bible. Only two large North American groups remained under the control of traditional, Biblical, faith-ful Christianity. The Southern Baptist Convention and the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS) endured emotional, political, and theological arguments and debates in the 1960s and 1970s; in both cases, leadership of these groups was held by supporters of the Biblical message, and the leaders and congregations and other entities that left were those who favored reason over faith.  Southern Baptists and the LCMS remained in the hands of those who treat the entire Bible as God’s Word rather than defining their task to sift through the human messages of Scripture to identify and proclaim a few genuinely inspired words from God.

Conservative victory in the LCMS did not produce a happy, healthy, smooth-functioning synod. The bitterness of the “Battle for the Bible” left some church professionals looking over their shoulders, as if they might be the next victims of a church-wide purge. Disagreements over worship styles and other internal controversies were treated as if their issues were as vital as questions about Biblical inspiration. Even political competition within the LCMS took on the flavor of a Crusade to defend truth and overthrow error. In one seminary, students joked that the cafeteria tables were bugged by both sides: microphones heard the in the office of the seminary’s president were hidden in the saltshakers, and microphones heard in the office of the synod’s president were hidden in the pepper-shakers. The academic environment was tense, unsettled, and uncertain.

Some students felt the pressure stronger than others. One student in particular struggled to find his way in this new (to him) environment. J.

College years

When I told my parents that I planned to attend seminary after college and become a Lutheran pastor—with the final goal of writing and teaching theology—my father strongly suggested that I not attend a Lutheran college. He felt that I would have a broader experience and understanding if my college education was not from the same system as the seminary I would later attend. With that in mind, I looked at small liberal arts colleges in the Heartland of America, ranging from Oberlin College in Ohio to Creighton University in Nebraska. My short list of three colleges attracted my attention because they were then experimenting with “open curriculum,” meaning that students had greater freedom to choose their courses, not required to take a predetermined number of hours in science, math, languages, etc. (Frankly, one of the reasons this option attracted me was my hope to avoid physical education.) The second such college I visited with my parents fit that description and felt like a comfortable community, so I enrolled and committed myself to four years at that campus.

I could write thousands of words about my college experiences. I took classes (and graduated at the top of my class) and also participated in a variety of extracurricular activities, including writing for the student newspaper, broadcasting contemporary Christian music on the campus radio station, taking part in student government, being a member of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, and even playing on an intramural basketball team. (Did you catch the irony?) I was part of a tight group of friends; we saw ourselves represented by contemporary movies such as The Big Chill and St. Elmo’s Fire. But the most relevant experiences as I aimed for a career in theology were the classes I took in religious studies.

The college’s religion professors were largely older white men who had been pastors (much as I would be described today if I were a college professor). Their approach to the Bible was far different than that I had learned growing up in a conservative Lutheran family and congregation, and it was equally different from what I would learn in seminary. They taught about supposed sources of Biblical accounts such as J, E, P, D, and Q. We spent more time examining the communities from which the Bible allegedly arose and less time considering what it had to say to people today. At the same time, Christian theology was dividing into assorted schools of thought such as liberation theology, black theology, and feminist theology, but the professors were not up to date on those approaches. They also had only academic exposure to non-Christian religions. Granted, they had the wisdom to invite the local rabbi to teach a class on Judaism. But I also learned about Judaism from a Jewish friend on campus (who did not like the local rabbi), and I learned about Islam from an assortment of Muslim students on campus, one of whom was my first roommate. My exposure to Hindu thought came from Beatles music, but I also learned to read texts from east Asia and south Asia and to see the material world and the spiritual world from those perspectives.

As my father had hoped, I learned many important lessons from my college religion classes. I learned to defend my faith in a mildly hostile environment. (I say “mildly hostile” because it was possible for me to disagree with my professors, even while taking an exam, and to earn an A provided I could defend my position.) I learned how to communicate in the language of scholars who are not conservative Lutherans. I learned how to be friends with people who did not share my core religious beliefs. I learned how to discuss religion and other controversial topics without ending friendships or becoming entangled in emotional wrangling or dead-end conversations. I found more reason to hold to my beliefs, having experienced the world in which people of contrary beliefs live and function. And I took part in a wide array of studies and student activities, not being limited to academic life of a purely theological bent.

But I did not learn how to survive in a conservative Lutheran academic community. J.

Key choices in the direction of a career

My worst subject in elementary school was penmanship. My handwriting has always been bad for two reasons. First, when I was young, my fine motor skills were, well, not very fine. Second, my mind moves much faster than my hands, so I am always in a hurry to get things written.

My parents, consulting with my teacher, decided that I would practice handwriting at home. I had a set time for penmanship practice, a certain number of minutes each day. They had me copying sentences out of my favorite books, which made sense for a while. Eventually, I wanted to go beyond copying what others had written; I wanted to create my own material. Even in the third grade, I sensed that everything I wanted to read had not yet been written, and I was determined to write those books myself. My parents permitted me to write my own stories. I doubt that decision helped my penmanship—once again, my mind was racing far ahead in the story, and my hand couldn’t keep up the pace. But my career as a writer began in that way.

In spring of my fourth grade year, the music department tested our hearing to determine which students had the best perception of differences in pitch. Also, the music department brought in middle school students with their instruments to encourage us to join the band and orchestra. My pitch perception tested very well, and the music department told my parents that I would be good at string instruments like the violin, or at the trombone. My parents thought they would prefer a beginning trombonist in the home over a beginning violinist and encouraged me to volunteer for the trombone. I accepted their challenge and was a trombonist from the summer between fourth and fifth grade through my first year of college. I think a lot of other families in our region followed the same process. It seemed that competition was high among trombonists everywhere I went, from high school honors bands to summer camps to municipal summer programs. Even when I was the best trombonist in my school, I couldn’t always stand out from the crowd in larger groups. My life might have been different if my parents had encouraged me to play the violin.

Still, I loved music almost as much as I loved writing. My sophomore year, I had to choose between two after-school activities. I had already become involved with the high school newspaper, a natural place for me to land as a budding author. But I was also active in the music department, and the spring musical was a big deal at our school. That year, the department had chosen Music Man. I could not play in the orchestra for the musical and also work on the newspaper. I know I thought about it for a while and weighed both choices. In the end, I chose to go with Music Man, making me one of three trombonists to represent the seventy-six trombones of the script. I never regretted that decision. My high school friends were in music and drama, not in the newspaper. I worked up the courage to appear on stage my senior year. I had many good experiences and still have many good memories because of that choice. I cannot help wondering, though, where life might have led me had I stuck with the newspaper and given up the music and drama.

Either the summer before or the summer after that choice (I cannot remember which summer it was), I made another important choice. As a child, I had dreamed of many possible careers: astronaut, fireman, pastor, writer, and other possibilities which do not come to mind at the moment. One night, my parents and I were in a motel, returning from a family vacation. My mother and father were sound asleep, but I could not fall asleep. I thought about what I wanted to do with my life, and I prayed. I asked God to guide my decision. Somehow, during that night, I concluded that I wanted to write, but I wanted to write for God. I wanted to write for the Church. I wanted my writing to matter, not in the realm of my favorite writers (including Mark Twain, Lewis Carroll, Mike Royko, Kurt Vonnegut, and Roald Dahl), but among Christians.

Later that summer, I discussed that thought with my pastor. He knew me well; even when I was a confirmation student, he had been impressed with my thinking and my ability to handle difficult concepts. Pastor Hoffmann thought I could be a valuable theologian in the Church. Generally, theologians teach in the seminary, which means they must first receive a seminary education. Pastor Hoffmann also told me that the best seminary teachers have served in the parish. They are more helpful to their students because they have done the work that their students are preparing to do.

I did not think that I could be a pastor. Speaking in front of people was not my strong suit. Nor did I expect to be able to handle the other duties that are expected of a pastor in the congregation. My peers had spent several years telling me—and reinforcing the message emphatically—that I was different, that a lot of people did not like me, that I did not belong to the “in crowd.” For this reason, I wanted to write. I enjoyed writing, I seemed to be good at writing. I would be able to write in solitude, and I could send my books out to speak for me. But, because Pastor Hoffmann assured me that the seminary degree and some experience in the parish were important preparation for the writing I wanted to do, I began to chart my course in that direction. From that point in high school, and on through the college years, I was aiming to be a pastor—not as my final goal, but as steps on the path to writing for God and for His people. J.

Growing up in the Seventies

Some readers might wonder whether my formative years, spent in the Chicago suburbs, resembled the teen world depicted in movies written and directed by John Hughes. My best answer to that question is, “Somewhat.” My family and the families of my classmates were not, for the most part, as affluent as the families represented in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off or Home Alone (or, for that matter, in Risky Business, another teen-centered movie set in the Chicago area). Probably the 1980s movie that comes closest to depicting my memories of high school is Lucas, also not a John Hughes movie. But Hughes did capture some of the themes and nuances of adolescence in the Chicago suburbs during that era. The stereotypes depicted in Breakfast Club match the groups I knew in junior and senior high school.

I just pulled out my Middle School and High School yearbooks to confirm my memories of those years. Nearly every boy in my class was involved either in athletics (such as basketball) or in more academic extracurricular activities (such as the photography club). My better friends were in the latter group. A larger range of opportunities in high school allowed more overlap, but more prestige belonged to the athletes and cheerleaders than to the future chemists, physicians, or business leaders in the student body. The Swing Choir was also a prestigious group, and it was notable to be involved in the spring musical. (My four years, the high school put on “My Fair Lady,” “Music Man,” “Fiddler on the Roof,” and, “Hello, Dolly!” I played in the orchestra for “Music Man” and “Fiddler,” then auditioned for an acting role in “Dolly” and won the part of Horace Vandergelder.) Looking at the accomplishments listed for each graduating senior, some were active in many groups, others did only a few things, and some went through four years of high school without taking part in any activity outside of classes.

One feature of high school life missing from the John Hughes movies is religion. Most of the students I knew in middle school and high school were active in a church, generally the same church their parents attended. Some families were Catholic; many went to the Bible Church or other nondenominational congregations. Being near Wheaton with its Christian college and its Christian publishing companies, the students in my community had a higher than average Bible literacy and participation in faith-based groups.

But my other memories of those years involve bullying. Around fifth grade, other students began noticing that I was “different.” Without much racial or cultural diversity in our neighborhood, small things were enough to mark someone as “different.” I was called “the brain” and other less complimentary terms, including some words whose meaning may not have been known to the students who used them as insults. I was the first member of the class to wear glasses. I was the last to learn how to ride a bicycle, always being mildly awkward. When assaulted, I did not fight back. For about five years, I found myself at the receiving end of mild abuse—nothing horribly violent or humiliating, but abuse all the same.

One of my middle school teachers took me aside one day and advised me to fight back. He believed that one solid punch in the nose might set the bullies straight and end my troubles. I didn’t have the confidence to follow his advice. When I was a high school freshman, a Physical Education (P.E.) teacher deliberately put me in a difficult position. We were playing dodgeball in PE, the bane of all tortured, non-athletic students. He had a variant of the game that required a student to guard an orange traffic cone while the rest of the class tried to knock the cone over with the rubber balls. Because I could not wear my glasses during PE, certainly not in dodgeball, I could not see the balls coming my direction to catch them (which would have disqualified the thrower of the caught ball from the contest). But, blinded though I was, I doggedly guarded the cone and kept it from being hit. Needless to say, I was thoroughly pelted during the moments the game continued—probably a much shorter time than it seemed. As the PE teacher may have respected, I did not cry or lose my composure or complain in any way. My endurance, perhaps, helped to win respect for me from at least some of the more athletic types that had felt only disdain for me until that day.

I have good memories from high school. I learned many important and helpful things in the classroom. I took part in the marching band, the orchestra, the musicals, the district math contest, the student newspaper, and the Honors Society. I made friends, some of whom are still valuable to my life today. At the same time, I also learned that many people will dislike me, just because I am “different.” I believed my mother’s advice, that “if you show people that their pestering bothers you, they will keep on pestering.” (Therefore, I did not learn how to confront a bully.) I learned to dig in, to hold my ground, to keep on doing the right thing, and not to care if that makes life tough for a while. I learned that bad times end and that better things can be expected down the road. I learned to live. J.

Math and science and other stuff

Combined with a head start in reading, I also have a mind that is nimble with numbers. I can remember, from an early age, mentally playing with the numbers on the hymnal board, finding mathematical relationships among them. As a result, in school, I was accelerated in math as well as in reading.

Our school had about ninety children in each grade; the ninety were divided into three classrooms. We were sorted by academic competence, and every student knew which group was smart, which was dumb, and which was in the middle. In fourth grade they resorted us for math class. I remember one girl being teased because she was in the smart class for everything else, but for math she was in the dumb class. I do not think the school district meant for us to be aware of the difference, let alone judgmental about it, but children will be children.

I was one of the few who was promoted a year in math (but not in other classes). As a fourth-grader, I went to the fifth grade class for math. In fifth grade I was with the sixth-graders, then in sixth grade with the seventh-graders, and in seventh-grade I was with the eighth graders. No one had a plan about what to do with me next, so I repeated eighth grade math in the eighth grade. If someone at school or at home had troubled to get a high school book and guide me through it, I might have taken more interest in math or science as a career, but no one bothered to think that far outside the box.

On the other hand, my parents surrounded me with scientific toys. I had a telescope and a microscope, a chemistry kit, and a kit of electronic projects from Radio Shack. I enjoyed those toys, and I’m sure they helped me to well in school, but math and science remained fun hobbies. I got easy As in those subjects all through school, but I never considered career opportunities in those fields.

I followed the space program on TV, watched the Apollo missions to the moon, and dreamed of being an astronaut. I dissected frogs in seventh grade and learned the parts of the body, even the Latin names for all the bones. I took to algebra, to trigonometry, and to symbolic logic for geometric proofs like a duck to water. My senior year of high school, I took calculus, which was as far as the high school math program could take us. By the end of the year, my friend Pete and I were go-to resources, along with the teacher, to help the rest of the class understand the calculus lessons. (Pete was high school valedictorian; he is now a family physician in the Chicago area.) Some high school teachers, and some other adults I knew, were disappointed that I was not pursuing further education and a career in science or mathematics.  

When I was in the fourth grade, a student teacher working on a paper for her school took me and a few other students from assorted grades out of class for testing that went beyond the standardized tests all students took. I was never told results of those tests. But, after I graduated college, I once took the privilege of visiting the school and seeing my “permanent file.” I learned that, in the earliest grades, my standardized test scores were only slightly above average. I scored well on the individualized tests conducted by this student teacher. Afterward, my test scores increased each year. In high school, I scored As in every class except some Physical Education classes and one typing class. (I graduated seventh in my class.) In college I managed straight As and was at the top of my class. On the SAT and ACT and later on the GRE, I landed in the highest percentile. But skill at test-taking does not translate to skill in all areas. I am capable of only the most basic household and car repair skills—I can change a light bulb or even replace a switch or electrical outlet; I can change a tire or a car battery. Beyond those basic tasks, I rely on professionals. I’ve done a smattering of learning in other languages, but I’ve never become fluent in a second language, and geniuses who can sense and describe nuances in the grammar of vocabulary of Biblical Hebrew and Greek or in more recent Latin and German texts blow me out of the water. I can read music and play several instruments but am proficient at none of them. It took me many years to begin to appreciate the complexity of classical music, let alone modern jazz. No one does all things well. At best, we do well in the things that matter most to us and to those who rely upon us. J.

It has always been about books

My mother used to say that she taught me to read as a method of self-defense so she would be able to get things done around the house while I was awake. Apparently, I would toddle after her, carrying a book, demanding that she stop what she was doing and read to me. Books and reading, then, have been part of my life since my very earliest years, and that fact is unlikely to change any time in the foreseeable future.

Back in my days, children were sent to school to learn how to read and write and do math. Parents did not attempt early childhood education at home. Kindergarten was optional in those days, and other forms of preschool did not yet exist. My parents chose to send me to kindergarten, not because I needed an early education or because they wanted a few hours a week of child care, but because they thought I needed to be around other children. At a parent-teacher conference that year, the kindergarten teacher warned my mother that I might have some kind of disability. I spent more time looking at each page of each book than most children my age. My mother laughed and told the teacher that I was reading the words on the page. The teacher did not believe her until she took me aside and had me read to her. Later, she had me read to the entire class. I remember that event: the book was about a boy who bought a goldfish but fed it too much, causing it quickly to grow to an enormous size. I cannot recall any reaction from my peers about the fact that I could read to them, but I do remember reading that book to them.

This is, perhaps, one of the few significant differences between the Baby Boomer Generation and Generation X. Early childhood education began to be stressed after the Boomers had left early childhood, just as the Xers were reaching that milestone. Sesame Street went on the air in November 1969. Boomers had children’s TV: first we had Howdy Doody, and after him came Captain Kangaroo and Mister Rogers. But none of those shows spoke to us about letters and numbers and colors. They were there to entertain us. They imparted some information and social values in the process. But they did not offer communication skills or arithmetic: schools were established to provide that kind of training.

In first grade, the teacher stressed the alphabet. In second grade, each student was evaluated and placed into a curriculum of twenty volumes, beginning with the basics and ending with fluent reading. I remember that I was started in volume twelve. I also remember that volume nineteen consisted of myths from the Greeks and Romans (using the Roman names of Jupiter and Mercury and the rest), and volume twenty was a story that borrowed from C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe. I no longer remember how the group of children entered the magic world of that story, but I do recall that petrification was one of the dangers in that world; I also remember a running theme centered on the riddle, “When is a door not a door? When it is ajar.”

My head start in reading was formative for my academic career. Being an early reader, I developed skills as a fast reader with a high level of comprehension. I heard, as a young adult, about classes in speed reading, but I never felt the need to increase my reading rate. One of the skills taught in those classes (I understand) is the ability to scan a line of text without focusing upon every word. I did not know whether I read that way until an event several years ago. I was reading in the living room; one of my children was doing schoolwork on the computer across the room. I looked up at the child and watched her work long enough that the afterimage of the computer screen was temporarily burned onto my retina. Then, returning to my reading, I observed that the afterimage was jumping across the page, pausing for an instant near the beginning and the ending of each line, not looking at each word. Somewhere in my early career as a reader, I taught myself how to speed read without any instruction or effort to gain that skill.

Many benefits derive from speed reading. A few benefits are lost. I doubt that I appreciate poetry as thoroughly as slower readers who savor each word and each expression in the poem. I enjoy poetry, but I know that other people gain more from reading poems than I gain. The same attitude transfers to other art appreciation. I cannot watch a movie or hear a symphony faster than anyone else, but in an art gallery I spend far less time looking at individual pieces than most people do. Even appreciating nature, I do not stand and absorb the view in the way most people do. I see the same things, I notice details, I rejoice in the beauty that surrounds us; but I do so quickly, and I am ready to move on while other people are still looking.

People are different. Our differences do not make us better or worse than other people. Together, we are the harmony, the palette of colors, the blend of flavors that enrich all our lives. Without our differences, we would all be the same, and what a boring world would result from that sameness! J.

Childhood memories

I was born in a house my father built. This is not to say that my father drew up the architectural plans for the house, that he dug the basement or poured the cement for the foundations of the house. Nor did he raise the walls, shingle the roof, or install the plumbing and electrical work. My parents paid professional workers to do all these tasks; they oversaw the work and even suggested two or three small refinements to the original plan. But it was their house from the beginning; no other family had ever lived there before, and no other family has lived there since.

The land was a gift from my mother’s parents. In 1939 they purchased a farmhouse and three acres of land from the original farm. Their plan at the time was that their son and their daughter would each be given a quarter of the property to build a home. This plan was fulfilled; so my nearest neighbors growing up were my grandparents next door and my uncle and aunt and cousins behind us. For legal purposes, my parents were required to pay some money to my grandparents to acquire the land. My father gave my grandfather a ten dollar bill the day the papers were signed to transfer the property; at the end of the ceremony, my grandfather secretly returned the cash to my father, telling him, “You need this more than I do.”

Not only did my father really build the house; I was not really born in the house. I was born eleven miles away, in the maternity ward of a hospital. The family doctor my parents chose practiced in that hospital, not in the hospital located in their hometown, which was much closer to their house. My birth certificate lists my legal birthplace as one town, but my genuine hometown has always been the house where my parents lived when I was born, the town where I grew up and went to school, the town where I was baptized and confirmed, where I attended church with my parents, where I played outdoors with the neighborhood children or alone, where I learned many of the things that I know and remember today.

Winfield had 567 residents in 1940, the year after my grandparents moved there. I had a railroad station, a tavern, and a tuberculosis sanitarium that would become Central DuPage Hospital. By the time I was in school, in 1970, the village had grown to 4,285 residents. Today the population approaches ten thousand Winfielders. The hospital is the largest employer in town, along with the school district and some stores. For the most part, Winfield is a bedroom community; workers live in Winfield but drive or take the train to their jobs in other places. Wikipedia lists a number of famous people who have lived in Winfield: professional athletes, writers, artists, and the like. My name is not yet on that list. Also missing from the list is Colonel Robert McCormick, whose mansion is just south of the village. McCormick once owned the Chicago Tribune. His estate has become a museum commemorating his life and remembering his service with the First Infantry Division of the United States Army. The property also includes flower gardens, picnic grounds, and a display of tanks on which children have climbed and played for years. The McCormick Estate is called Cantigny—technically pronounced “canteen” for the place in France, but always given the obvious three-syllable designation by those of us who lived nearby.

Wikipedia also mentions Schmidt’s pond, from which ice was harvested every winter to sell to families during the spring and summer and fall. Peter Schmidt dug the pond and began the ice business, but my mother knew it as the Klein pond and I knew it as the Enders pond, since the land changed ownership over the years. In the late 1980s, I met two women in Chicago who had traveled out to Winfield and visited the Kleins when they were girls, long before I was born. The pond was across the street and on the other side of the creek from the house where I lived.

My mother attended a one-room schoolhouse. I went to the same school years later, but several wings had been attached to the original structure, and a new Middle School was built across the street while I was a student. I walked to school every day regardless of the weather, went home for lunch and returned for afternoon classes, and walked home again at the end of the day. The walk was short; I had to walk farther to catch the bus that took me to high school after I graduated from eighth grade.

I cannot go home again. Our house was built in a flood plain. A few years ago it was bought by the local government and leveled. Other than the school and Cantigny, not much remains from the village that I remember. Things change. People change. The landmarks of my childhood live on only in memory. J.