Wednesday, December 13, 2006

when faith became alive

All this talk of Advent, of the point at which we prepare for Christ's birth, has had me thinking about the point in my own life when faith became a living thing, something that interested me and inspired me rather than just a set of beliefs.

It was in the early months of my senior year of high school, as I recall. The teacher of CCD class I was taking (which I participated in with some combination of resignation and loathing -- one more thing in my life that I "had" to do, which was not of my own choosing) happened to mention that there was to be a TEC retreat, and wondered if anyone would be interested in going.

I actually surprised myself when I raised my hand. Did I really want to go? I'm not sure. Religion held no particular allure for me at that point in my life. But something about the description sounded interesting -- or at least caught my attention. And so I volunteered to go.

The weekend of my retreat, I remember walking into the classroom in a school about an hour away from my hometown. My apprehension about doing so was fairly substantial. These people were singing hymns. (Hymns! Voluntarily!) And this wasn't even church, where everyone generally agreed that the proper recitation of hymns was somewhere on God's checklist for entry into eternal glory -- kind of like an earthly substitute for the flames of purgatory. Hymns!

Mind you, I was seventeen.

Anyway, the hymns eventually stopped and the retreat began in earnest. The first day was "Die" day. Sadly, I recall very little of the topics discussed, or the people who presented speeches that day. I do recall the basic idea of examining our lives for areas of sinfulness, reporting these to the larger group, and a mass with an option to enter the confessional.

What I recall far better was my group leader, Jennifer. Jennifer remains to this day the best example I know of God's willingness to use almost any means to make people take a relationship with the Divine seriously. Subterfuge. Trickery. And, in my case, some degree of adolescent hormones.

Jennifer was, in a word, gorgeous. Not merely pretty, gorgeous. She had been Miss Teen South Dakota the previous year, had active work as a local model (not that I knew any of this at the time). And the thing was, she wasn't stuck up, arrogant, or any of that. Quite the contrary, she was kind, genuine, compassionate. A truly beautiful soul.

Mind you, this is all very difficult to understand for a kid who felt socially awkward and unsure of himself. This was the kind of girl the star football player spent time with in the hallway at school, not an average (albeit earnest) member of the debate squad.

So I had a hard time falling asleep that night. Feelings of guilt over the areas of sin in my life, concern about what the others might be thinking about me, and significant confusion over why Jennifer was acting so nice to me swirled in my head until fatigue finally got the best of me. Even then, I didn't sleep particularly well.

The next morning began "rise" day. Which, of course, began with a mass. And when it came time for the sign of peace, Jennifer walked over to me, gave me a hug, and said simply "I love you, Steve."

It was another thing that she did quite simply, naturally, and easily. It was sincere and came off her tongue without difficulty. Which, looking back on it, leads me to believe that she probably felt quite comfortable saying this kind of thing, probably said it to a lot of people in her life.

Anyway, there it was, my moment of grace. I felt...loved. I had this indisputable proof that I was worthy and acceptable and...loved. Which is a shocking and powerful thing when you've spent years building up an identity as something of an outsider, as someone who didn't quite fit in. It shook me to my core.

I sometimes wonder where she is now, whether she had any idea how much that moment changed me. I honestly have no idea where she is now or what became of her. But I think if fortune ever crossed our paths, I would simply want to say "thanks." Her example of simple kindness and genuineness sticks in my head to this day. I pray to show my gratitude by living my life in a way that lives up to the example she showed me.


Lori said...

In reading your blog, it sounds like you're the Steve I went to graduate school with. . .anyway, I just wanted to say hi! I like to blog, too, but mine's not really a personal blog like yours. It sounds like you and your family are facing some challenges, and I wish you well in all of that. Happy holidays!

steve said...

Hi Lori!

Thanks for checking out my blog. Out of curiosity, how did you come across it? Also, I seem to recall that there were two Lori's in grad school when I was there. Is this Lori K?


Lori said...

Nope--Lori L., in the class behind you. Actually, it seems like quite a coincidence, but I was just reading random blogs on blogger. I like to read other people's blogs. I used to have one on blogger (actually I think it's still there), but I moved over to Blogcharm.

more cows than people said...

tried to post a comment on this yesterday. this is a great story. thanks for sharing it. now here's hoping blogger lets me post this! i think my comment might have been more profound yesterday. must sleep...

Magdalene6127 said...

Steve, this is such a lovely story. TEC= Teens Encounter Christ?

It makes me think you should write a memoir. Moments of grace... really so moving. Thanks for sharing it.


steve said...


Yes, TEC = "Teens Encounter Christ." In South Dakota, I believe they called them "Prarie TEC"; which is odd, for it sounds far too much like a noxious local pest -- the "prarie tick." Anyway, thank you for your kind words. You think I should consider writing a memoir? Hmm...I may have to give that some thought. Thanks for the suggestion!

more cows,

thank you for your kind words. I'd love to hear your "profound" comments from the other day, if you have the time.

more cows than people said...

steve, i don't know how profound i was upon first reading your story. i just deeply appreciate it and so much about it- your honesty about the experience of church and its trappings as compulsory as a teenager, your honesty about the nudgings of grace throughout- propelling your hand into the hair for example, your honesty about your reaction to wiling hymn singing, your honesty about that first rough night of sleep (oh how i've been there) and the poignancy of a simple act of compassion by a beautiful, young woman. yes, God comes to us, catches us, claims us, transforms us in the most unexpected of ways. i felt the power of the moment when she said "I love you, Steve." i feel it now as I think of it.

so often prophetic pictures of salvation involve the bringing of the outside in, the embrace of the outcast, the pictures of salvation painted by Jesus' life ministry are much the same. This woman embodied God's love, embodied Christ for you. I suspect you are not one who would tell folks you've been saved (nor am I), but you tasted something of God's salvation in this simple act of kindness. alleluia!

so how is faith alive for you now? and what helps it stay so?

steve said...

more cows,

You do me a very great honor with your eloquent and thoughtful response. Thank you. It was very meaningful to me.

And I love the fact that you ended your comments with a challenge to me to think about what keeps my faith alive now. I shall have to contemplate more on that one. A future post, perhaps?