Monday, December 9, 2013

Empathy For Esau

Being a firstborn son, I’ve always felt a measure of empathy for Esau. Not the parts about marrying lots of wives nor wanting to kill his brother[1], but the part about selling his birthright. The big difference as firstborns between Esau and me is that the expectations placed on Esau as the firstborn came with a sizeable inheritance; the expectations on me came with a trombone. I’m sure the expectations were somewhat different, too. As opposed to herding the vast amount of sheep my father had accumulated, it was expected that I would become a preacher, like my dad.

All parents like to regal[2] others with cute stories about how awesomeness of their children. One of my mom’s favorite anecdotes was the time I gave all of my money to a missionary couple. During the service, this couple mentioned a ministry need, and I apparently felt burdened to help meet this need. So, being a sweet and concerned three year old, I gave them my prized nickel. My mom absolutely loved that story. I know that she loved it because she told it frequently and the look on her face as she told it indicated that she loved it[3]. She would end the story with “John has such a heart for ministry. We’re praying that God will continue to direct him into fulltime Christian ministry like his father.”

Look, I’m sure that if you were to ask my brother, he felt many of the same pressures to follow in our dad’s footsteps as I did. I can’t speak for him, but I do know that as the oldest son I believed that my parents would be disappointed in me if I didn’t become a pastor or a missionary - or a youth pastor, at the very least. I believed this because my parents flat out told me that their prayers and hopes for me were that I would become a preacher.

The problem was, as a young boy who didn’t know if he even believed that there was a God, being a preacher wasn’t on my list of probable future careers. I wanted to be a fighter pilot, but my dad was quick to point out that I didn’t have 20/20 vision. So, I set my sights on being a pitcher for the Chicago Cubs; which was problematic, because my parents knew that there was no way that was ever going to happen; so, my mom continued to tell people the story about her ministry minded eldest son.

My middle school years were spent on the pitcher's "mound" that I had marked off from the brick wall on the back of the church. My high school years were spent, having achieved the "above six feet tall" mark, on basketball courts perfecting my jump shop in anticipation of my future career as Michael Jordan's new Scottie Pippin or, begrudgingly after I realized I was done growing, Steve Kerr. During my senior year of high school, we had a "career" project. We had to research and write about our future career. I picked "lawyer." I arrived on campus at Bob Jones University as a Pre-law major at the start of my college career.  

Now, here’s where my life story possibly gets a little tricky and confusing for some people – I spent a semester at BJU as a preacher boy. Yep, I was a Missions major. Early February during my freshman year, I got “saved.”[4] A couple of weeks after that a new girl began working at the Campus Store, where I worked. This girl (I’m going to call her “Susan”) within hearing distance of where I was dusting the shelves[5], told some of the other female workers about a guy that kept asking her out. Susan said that she believed that God had called her to the mission field and so she would only date guys who were planning on going to the mission field. You can probably guess the rest of the story.

My poor parents were elated by the news when I called them to tell them that I had changed my major. My dad immediately scheduled me to preach on a Sunday evening when I was home at the end of the semester. I think that in his elation, he forgot that I wouldn’t have any actual preacher boy classes until the next semester. So, on a late spring Sunday evening, I climbed the steps of the platform, stood behind the pulpit, and delivered a twelve minute sermon. The time remains in my memory because I had been desperate to stretch the sermon to the twenty minute mark. If I had come up with a conclusion, I might have made it. The sermon outline is written in the Scofield Reference Bible that my parents gave me when I graduated from high school. My text was II Peter 3:18, and the sermon title was “Two Keys to Christian Growth.” Point I. was “Grace,” and point II. was “Knowledge.” If you want the rest of the outline, ask me and I may share it with you. Beware, it’s bad. Not bad in the completely out of left field exegesis way; but bad in the I-put-forth-no-effort way. After the sermon, one of the deacons, in front of my dad, said to me, “You’re a better preacher than your father.”

If I remember correctly, I preached a grand total of three more sermons in my life. Two of those were only because I failed to tell my parents that I had promptly changed my major to some sort of speech major a few weeks into the fall semester of my sophomore year at BJU. I actually don’t remember when I told them; it may have been the following July when my dad had to unceremoniously come and pick me up from the Bill Rice Ranch after I found myself suddenly unemployed. It was either then or soon after. Granted, they may have just figured it out on their own.

On the drive back from the Bill Rice Ranch, I attempted to tell my side of the story to my dad. He didn't say a whole lot. The one thing that I distinctly remember him saying was "I don't understand." That phrase sticks out in my mind because he said it several times. I now, I think, realize that he wasn't talking to me and that, more importantly, he wasn't talking about the load of shit I was attempting to sell him. That summer was the beginning of the major fractures with my parents, my dad specifically.

I had no desire to return to BJU that fall for what was supposed to be my junior year[6]. I remember two conversations with my parents between leaving the Bill Rice Ranch at the beginning of July and the end of August – one with my mom, and one with my dad. My mom cried during our conversation, which made me feel like the jackass that I was currently being. She told me that she worried about me more than her other kids because “I felt too much.” She also took the opportunity to tell me, once again, the story about the little boy who gave his last nickel to a missionary couple. There was far less pride and far more disappointment present in my mom’s face and voice in that rendering of the oft repeated anecdote.

The conversation with my dad had quite a different tone than the one with my mom. Less crying, for one thing. More yelling, for another. I don’t blame him; I really don’t. It’s not his fault that I had lied to him for so many years. It couldn’t have been easy watching his eldest son self-destruct, at least within his paradigm, right before his eyes. He didn’t know how to deal with this kid who had a wallet chain and smelled of cigarette smoke, who had burned bridges at the Bill Rice Ranch in front of his friends, and who was now telling him that he was done with Bob Jones University. My entire life’s course had been set by him, and in my years of silence, I had been complicit. I had never once shared my doubts and fears with him. I had never once asked him why he thought rock music was sinful nor attempted to have any conversations with him about my disagreements with him. I had, however, told him that God had called me to the mission field. I had also gone to work at a Christian camp during two summers in high school and a summer and a half in college, which put a heavy financial burden on my dad, a burden he never complained about. It's not entirely his fault that he woke up one July morning only to unceremoniously discover that his eldest son was eyeing pots of porridge.

I went back to Bob Jones, of course; I was simultaneously fired from my tree-service job and someone paid my school bill. Not knowing what else to do, I went back. I returned to campus late, and by the time I got there the “stories” about me had made the rounds and many of my classmates and acquaintances expressed how concerned they were for me and let me know that they had been and would be praying for me. I no longer pretended to care. I no longer had any doubt that my course was separate from the world of Christianity, and I drew a line in the sand; it would be years before I (by “I,” I mean the Holy Spirit) would begin to erase that line.  

That year, because a career aptitude test told me that I should either be an airline pilot or an actor (no joke), I changed my major to Interpretive Speech/Theatre. Being an actor was a career choice that was beyond “bad” in the circle I was raised in. It was a career choice that spoke to the utter contempt I felt for the faith and beliefs of my family and friends. But, it was also a career choice that I knew nothing about. I traded my birthright for an unknown.  

[1] Although, there was the time when my brother hit me in the face with a toy, leaving a mark that ruined my kindergarten pictures. I think I came close then.
[2] Translation – bore.
[3] During my twenties when I would hear her tell that story, her face always had a deep sadness in it.
[4] That’s a story for another post, which I’m writing.
[5] Don’t for a second believe that I hadn’t positioned myself to be within hearing.
[6] Between constantly changing my major and, more importantly, having a gpa of around 1, I was still a freshman, I think. Maybe a sophomore. I’m sure BJU still has the records if anyone wants to check.


  1. Well written,my friend. I assure you this scenario has been played out by many, although few of them will have the chutzpah to be as honest as you have been. Sadly, some of them are still preacher boys.

  2. Thank you, Ron. I appreciate the kind words, although, some would say that my "chutzpah" is just a need for attention :)