Grace

 

Grace

Most Sundays, I still want to cry. Most Sundays, I still do. Sometimes a little. Sometimes more than a little.

I’d love to tell you this has come from sort of internal epiphany, that I’ve reached some level of enlightenment on whatever kind of spiritual quest I’m on, one that I haven’t defined and one that — if I’m being honest — I kind of don’t want to.

It started, as most things do for me these days, with a challenge from my wife. For years she heard me talk about this somewhat seemingly random college phase where I was saved, joined a church, a ministry and even served as a youth group leader. I led prayer groups, sang in the band and went door to door in dormitories with a Bible in hand.

No, really.

As I’ve written about before my intentions at the time were mixed. I was motivated as much by social awkwardness as anything else. And just as suddenly _ at about the same time I joined the student newspaper and found my professional calling (and as a True Believer in the power of the written word, a spiritual one too) _ the urge vanished.

I’ve spent the better part of two decades locking that period in a box save for occasionally bringing it up, mainly to get some perverse sense of enjoyment out of the surprised look on the face of those I tell, people who know me only the cynical, perpetually foul-mouthed smart ass persona that I have carefully (well, maybe not so carefully) cultivated.

Every year the pangs of reconnecting — or maybe connecting on a truly sincere level for the first time — came around Christmas. And every year I’d talk about it, the holidays would pass and I would do nothing, the urge vanishing as quickly as M&Ms in the hands of my two children.

Then last winter my wife told me to put my faith where my fingers were. We took online tests to see what we believe _her a Catholic disaffected by the way the church handled (or didn’t as it turns out) serial child abuse, me a nondenominational wanderer _ what we don’t and where we might find a compromise.

I wanted to shop around. She didn’t. There are a handful of churches in our neighborhood but we opted for a Methodist church a little up the road.

We shuffled into a pew about halfway up the aisle. The kids polite but anxious. My wife calm. Me wondering battling the doubts that have prevented me from putting one foot in front of the other _ really, one knee next to the other in prayer _ for years.

I can’t tell you what Lynn, the church’s remarkably talented pianist, played. All I know is the emotional wave that accompanied it staggered me. The tears came slowly then all at once.

This is the part where we talk about Jesus and religion and big Gods and little ones. I know how that tends to go over. Hell, when I’m interviewing an athlete and he starts talking about his faith, my instinctive reaction is to roll my eyes, hit pause or walk away. Who cares what God thinks about your game? Tell me more about that play in the third quarter that I’m going to forget by Tuesday.

I lived with a Muslim for several months in college. He was in his early 30s, a graduate student from Saudi Arabia getting his masters in engineering. He washed his hands and feet five times a day, prayed toward the east and had a wife and family who would call once or twice a week. He would talk to them on speaker phone. I have no idea what his wife was saying, but I can remember the sound of the chaos that comes from having small children filling in the background as she spoke, a noise that doesn’t sound that unlike my house on a random Tuesday morning.

This was the mid-90s, before the Towers came crashing, before Watch Lists and Ted Cruz. I found him fascinating but I didn’t fear him. The respect was mutual. Muhammad gave me a Koran. I let him look at my Bible. We would talk about the differences (and more shockingly, the similarities) between the two books.

He was a good guy. A decent guy. I repaid that decency by neglecting to pay the phone bill, at one point taking his share and using it to buy concert tickets. (Did I mention I was  am kind of a tool?)

We didn’t keep in touch after that semester. Yet whenever I watch the news or read stories or Facebook screeds about Muslims or Islam, I think about Muhammad. I wonder how his life is. I wonder if his house still sounds like that.

The inherent skeptic in me makes it hard for me to imagine a God (feel free to use whatever name you prefer) who would exclude large swaths of people, of a God that would choose one ethnicity over another. Of a God that would encourage slaughter in the name of faith, something that your 10th grade history teacher tells you has happened just as much in Jesus’ name as in Allah’s.

And while all that is true, there’s a deeper level of conflict here. I hate labels. It’s one of the reasons I’m impossible to shop for. One of my biggest fears is looking back at a picture 20 years from now and seeing the logo of some clothing company (save for Nike, who I will ride or die with forever) and feeling so … dated. So … old. So … wrong.

My mistake for years has been wanting the same thing out of my religion. My mistake was thinking that my faith and God’s word are both static. They’re not. They’re living. They’re evolving. They’re morphing.

AND THEY ARE THERE. ALWAYS THERE. WAITING. PATIENTLY.

And maybe that’s what caused the tears to fall that first Sunday back. Maybe it was the comfort of the organ, the familiar smell of the pews’ upholstery. I have no idea if God was talking to me. I don’t trust myself enough to think I can divine whatever message he (or She, because let’s be real here, we have no idea) might be sending.

But I know that I felt … something. The best way I can describe it is silent grace, some sort of reassurance things can be different, that I can be different.

One weekend turned into three turned into us becoming members by the end of the spring, fueled as much by my wife’s level of commitment and determination and our kids’ level of comfort as the tears on my cheeks.

I’d love to tell you I’ve thrown myself into the Bible. I haven’t. The best I can do is immediately texting myself verses that stand out, like Matthew Chapters 5-7, which basically is Jesus asking his disciples what they are setting as the foundation of their lives? How will they weather the storms that will come? And … this is important for egomaniacs like myself … the dangers of getting so focused on what you are getting that you never realize what you have been given.

And I have been given far more than most, something that’s impossible to judge by my Twitter feed, which is a mixture of sarcasm, shoutouts to Journalism Purists (we still exist) and taking the piss out of anybody who gets a little too full of themselves (something that in the grand scheme just makes me look petty, which is probably the truth).

It’s funny how so much of what the New Testament and what Jesus talks about can be boiled down to this: Don’t be a jackass.

That is a sentiment that is universal. One I can get behind. One I can believe in.

It’s funny how the hesitancy I felt going back to church that first time has been replaced by an expectancy. After much dragging of my feet, I joined the choir. I’m the youngest member (save for the music director’s daughter) by at least a decade. My best buddy in there is an 81-year-old man named Ralph whose assuredness in his gentle faith is as staggering as it is compassionate.

I didn’t join to be the star. To be the new guy. (And while I could point out I made the Tri-County chorus in 1991 …. ss anybody who has karaoked with me knows, I make up for in enthusiasm what I lack in talent). I did it be a part of something. Not to stand out but to blend in. To feel part of something larger than myself. And in those moments when we stand as one, the grace I’ve been chasing for so many years appears before me. I tentatively drink it in, baby steps in a journey I hope never ends.

I am pound sign blessed, whether I want to admit it or not. Heck, I hope we all are.

 

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Survivor’s Remorse

Yep, that's about right.

Yep, that’s about right.

A year later, it turns out I’m going to live. At least for awhile (give or take the potential of getting smushed by a bus). Now what?

They say there are stages of grief. I probably experienced a portion of them all over the last 12 months following my cancer diagnosis. Denial and Isolation? Hell yeah. Anger? Absolutely. Bargaining? Kinda sorta. Depression? Sure, why not. Acceptance? Well, four out of five ain’t bad, right?

I named this navel gazing, insightful. narcissistic, self-absorbed site “A Blog Called Quest” because a: I didn’t have a better idea. Actually, there is no B. It’s just A. Well, A and the fact that these guys remain the greatest hip-hop group of all-time. So much for truth in advertising. It’s definitely a blog. A quest? Hmmm. Depends on your definition of the word. I could have called it “obvious midlife crisis hastened a bit by unlikely diagnosis of disease that sounds way scarier than it actually is” but the URL was just a little too long.

So what now? After 10 cycles of chemo (and two more to go by September) I’m as healthy as I’ve been since before my kids were born.I went back for a maintenance cycle last month. I’ve had oil changes that were more emotional. My disease isn’t the first thing I think about in the morning or the last thing I think about at night. Call it the upside of arrogance. I never worried that this thing would get me, even as I see others in the handful of Facebook groups I’ve joined struggle to repair their lives as the medicine that’s given me a second chance wreaks havoc with their own immune systems.

The default line here is I should be thankful, right?

A year ago I couldn’t climb the stairs in my house without thinking I was having a heart attack. Now if I do less than an hour on the treadmill or the sorority girl (note, that nickname came from a female cousin in law) errr elliptical machine I get cranky. I’m thinking about a 5K in a couple of weeks (my first race in a decade) and can’t wait until I become one of “those guys” who take their bike riding waaaaay too seriously sometime later this spring even if the truth is I typically get lapped by kids on tricycles.

I would love to sit here and tell you that I’ve figured it out, that I’ve figured me out. Yet I’m no closer now than I was the day my oncologist told me “Hey, you’ve got a rare form of incurable cancer but you’re going to be fine.” He was absolutely right of course, but reconciling two drastically different notions has been maddening.

Cancer got my father at 59. My brother-in-law at 35. Dad built houses. Bill was a teacher (and a good one). There is no explanation for what happened. How a non-smoker can be struck down in his prime by lung cancer is something I’m never going to figure out. How esophageal cancer turned a 6-foot-6, 230-pound titan into a graying, frail old man in six months is terrifying.

My experience has been far different. I’ve joked repeatedly that I have “JV” cancer. Most people think it’s me just being modest (important: as much as I try, modesty isn’t really my thing). I’ve sat in chairs next to folks nearing the end. I’ve watched the nurses come out wearing the blue scrubs with the chemo bags and tenderly administer it. I get four shots to the stomach and a four-hour drip of a drug that is basically little more than a reminder to my white blood cells to get to work and start kicking cancer’s ass.

It’s hard not to think about why I was spared. Why is my life more valuable than any those facing far more dire circumstances. It’s like watching a disaster movie where the entire planet is wiped out but hey, the protagonist is gonna live so really, everything is gonna be OK.

I wish I could tell you I’ve found my purpose. Lord knows I’ve been searching for one. If the last year has taught me anything, it’s that I have spent far too much of the first half of my life screwing around. And yet old habits die hard. I still play video games. I still obsess over what my professional contemporaries are doing (and just as importantly, what I’m NOT doing.) I still stare at my phone way too much, and while I’m becoming more of a grownup on Twitter, I’m still not exactly a paragon of responsible tweeting.

My smart friend Nancy (disclaimer, while this happens to be her name this is also a blatant ripoff of this guy’s work) says repeatedly “You had cancer, not a lobotomy.” Sometimes I’d almost prefer the latter (and my incredibly patient wife would agree). Far too often over the last year I’ve sounded like every politician who has ever promised “change” (no offense Mr. President) only to discover the mechanisms of democracy make progress a difficult and sometimes ugly slog (I’m looking at you Indiana).

I get told all the time that I’m being too hard on myself. That what I’m going through is completely natural, that I need to give myself a break. And I get it. Yet when I’m sitting there undergoing treatment and I see people who would likely switch places with me in an instant, it’s hard not to feel like every second when you waste not maximizing your life is a complete waste of everyone’s time.

There was a blissful stretch last summer where I really did unplug. I focused on my health and my family. I took time off work. I stayed out of the bubble I had lived in for far too long.

Then my numbers started ticking up. I felt my strength return. And the bubble returned, version 2.0. And I realized how incredibly fortunate I am. At my core though, it only made the issues I’ve struggled with for years seem only more urgent.

Every day I deal with intensified expectations. I want to be the best father. The best husband. The best writer. The best son. The best brother. The best (insert whatever I’m doing at a given moment). Every damn day. I can say unequivocally I am a better person than I was five years ago. At the same time that pursuit has made my awareness of my own shortcomings only more acute.

God didn’t spare me so I could win the Stanley Cup on my Playstation one more time. (At least, I’m figuring he didn’t). Trying to figure out what to do with the 40ish years I have left is perplexing. My greatest gift as a writer is my ability to get a handle on people. Whether it’s the best gymnast in the world or the kid at the end of the bench. I can ask the right questions, talk to the right people. And yet I’m no closer to getting the gears in my head straight than I was a year ago. Or five years ago. Or 20.

At least now, though, I’m trying. My family is in the process of joining a church, something my wife and kids have somehow taken faster to than I have. I’m trying to break out of my comfort zone by volunteering for a non-profit. I might not save the world. Not all of it anyway. But I will do my part if it freaking kills me.

Which, thankfully, blessedly it won’t. Not anytime soon at least.

Cancer might not be the best thing that ever happened to me, but it might be among the most important. To fully embrace my life, first I had to realize I might lose it. What a world. What a ride. The quest continues.

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–30–

The Search Continues

silentnight

The moment almost always starts out awkward, no matter how good the intentions behind it.

Each night before dinner, my wife and I ask our kids which one of them would like to say grace. Our 3-year-old daughter usually volunteers and after some gentle prodding she will treat us to one of the sing-songy prayers they say before each meal at her daycare located inside a local church.

It’s between those walls that our kids have nominally been exposed to religion. The children learn about Jesus and all that, but the truth is for Ellie and I the religious education our kids have there (our son attended the same daycare for nearly three years before starting kindergarten) is almost beside the point. It’s a safe, nurturing environment. The fact the teachers talk about Jesus is practically incidental.

Maybe it shouldn’t be.

I grew up in a home that was gently agnostic. My father was a lapsed Catholic. My mother a Baptist who gave up on trying to get us to go to church regularly when we were still in elementary school. Life was so hectic Monday-Saturday, who wanted to spend Sunday mornings trying to convince minimally interested kids it was time to get dressed up and go out when the time might be better spent reading the paper, doing the crossword or prepping for the Redskins game?

Then, stunningly, an abrupt sea change occurred. My senior year of high school I dated the first real capital C “Christian” I’d ever met. My freshman year in college, I was “saved.” I spent the better part of three years doing a deep dive into nondenominational Christianity. I went to Bible Studies. I witnessed to students in dorms, led public prayers and joined Campus Crusade for Christ. I served as a youth group leader and basketball coach at one church, sang in the band at another and attended the occasional service at a third. I wasn’t a Bible thumper, exactly, but a Bible suggester. “Hey, this book might be pretty good, I think you should read it.” That kind of stuff.

I didn’t drink. I didn’t party much. Hell, I even quite cursing for awhile.

(We’ll pause a minute here for the folks that didn’t know me then to absorb that last part.)

Looking back, it’s obvious the decision to get so heavily involved was as much social as it was spiritual. There was a sense of inclusion in these groups that I couldn’t find in other places, mostly because my idea of a good time (then, at least) did not include drinking as much Milwaukee’s Best as I could stand.

I felt like I belonged even if I wasn’t sure I did. The nagging voice in the back of my head constantly questioned my motives, wondering if I truly believed in anything at all other than the need to find a place where I was accepted. And during those three years I saw the same kind of cliqueish behavior I would have found in any other group. I also had the pleasure of being treated with true kindness, generosity and wisdom by people whose faith and spiritual walk I respect even more when I look at it through the all-knowing prism 20 years of hindsight provides.

The relationship didn’t stick, though. My senior year in college I joined the student newspaper and found my calling. I knew I belonged with the ink-stained masses (back when ink on dead wood was a thing), churning out copy on deadline, sharing a beer afterward and plotting to save humanity one dazzling bit of prose at a time.

For the better part of two decades, my profession has been my religion. Hell, I’d argue it’s more of an obsession. I have spent far too much time worrying about the state of journalism _ and more importantly, my place in it _ than anything else in my life. My family. My health. My kids. My future. My grammar (apologies copy editors).

Yet this time of year, every year, I can feel something tugging at me. The time in my early 20s when I was idly driving through Annapolis and Handel’s “The Messiah” came on as I was scanning the radio and I spent the ensuing 40 minute trip to my parents’ house driving through tears. The Christmas Eve service at a downtown Louisville Catholic church eight years ago where all I could think about was that if “O Holy Night” sounded this beautiful then someone, some thing, must be behind it. The quiet moments the last few years when I get home late after a game and my family is asleep upstairs, those blissful minutes in the dim light of the Christmas tree when my brain finally gives me a break and lets me focus on the wonder of all the things I have _ instead of all the things I don’t.

My daughter’s daycare class had birthday cake on Monday. It was for Jesus. Said so in red icing right there on the top. When she came home she talked about it. Before dinner she sang the sweetest version of “Johnny Appleseed” that you have ever heard. Trust me.

Then it was one with the typical dinner stuff, the bartering to get them top finish their pork chops. My wife and I running down our day. The anxiety that comes with trying to get everything ready for Christmas, the loneliness of being separated from our families, all the usual stuff. Our 5-year-old reminded us to turn the fireplace off so Santa wouldn’t get burned when he visits on Christmas Eve.

We didn’t talk about going to church. We haven’t been with any sense of regularity since well before our son was born. And yet this year the pull feels stronger than ever. Maybe it’s the cancer (in remission, btw). Or the fact that four years out I’ve finally started to accept that my father is dead, or that our time is more precious than I ever imagined.

I don’t know what I believe. I am terrified that my kids will start asking in a few years who and what God is about and my answer will be to shrug my shoulders and check to see what Twitter says about it.

My wife and I will never be the kind of parents that foist religion on our children. It’s a personal choice, one each individual needs to figure out on their own. I am slowly growing worried that I am no closer to an answer now than I was on that September night in 1992 when I got on both knees in my dorm room and asked for salvation even though I wasn’t quite sure what I was doing.

But I do know this: it’s time to start talking about it, if only to make those awkward moments before dinnertime prayer a little more meaningful and little less random.

Merry Christmas folks. Harry Connick Jr. is here to play you out: