journey post 9: The Line in the Zigzag
You may notice that I have put two posts on hold. One, I wrote a post titled “A parable of apprenticeship” which is about Christian discipleship. After mulling it over with Michelle, I realized it would not fit here just yet. Two, I started writing a post about the role of C.S. Lewis and his book, Mere Christianity, in my becoming a Christian. His life and book had deep impact on my thinking as I queried, “Is this Jesus for real?” Hopefully, I will complete the book and the post this week. In the meantime, I felt it important to insert the following post….
While reading Lewis’ book some forty years ago, I was coming to a firm conclusion about who Jesus is and the reliability of the Bible witness about him. Yet, I was also struggling deep inside about how public I should be with what I was thinking. This deep struggle is a subtext in my zigzag journey story—in my life—and it runs through the paths I’ve taken like a sharp spear, hence the image of a line in the zigzag. The good news in this is that the line, in real life, does not run all the way through the zigzag… but that’s another part of the story, and much later on.
The internal struggle has to do with fear and shame, and it would play out in my life continually, manifesting its ugly self in various ways, such as a lack of self-esteem and self-confidence, even a lack of honesty and integrity. I bring it up not to elicit pity or sympathy, but understanding. I can’t say that I ever overcame it by strength of will or dramatic spiritual power. I can’t actually say that I have ever overcome it at all. It largely disappeared in my life when my search for identity reached a dramatic conclusion only a few years ago. However, just as I still jump at loud, sudden, explosive noises as a residue of my time in Vietnam, so other things, such as shame and fear—however far gone from my life—maintain a residual presence and I sometimes have to consciously remind myself that I do not have to give in to it.
I decided to write this post yesterday morning as I was listening to an interview with Josh McDowell on a radio show. McDowell is a Christian man whose book, Evidence that Demands a Verdict, like the one by Lewis, had helped me explore evidence for the life of Jesus and the resurrection. In the interview, Josh was recounting his youth, and how his mom had a serious thyroid problem that caused her to keep gaining weight. She couldn’t even pass through a door without bumping it. Josh related how he was ashamed to even be seen with her because she was so big. It became something that gave him great shame growing up.
I never had a family member that I did not want to be seen with, but for as long as I can remember, I lived in a house that I wanted no one to see or associate with me. I lived there all my life growing up in Eagle Rock until I came back from Vietnam, when my mom moved to Glendale. The house itself, a single-story wood frame building with clapboard siding and wood shingle roof, is absolutely graceful, and it’s still there. I can’t give the proper architectural terms, but it obviously was designed by an architect. It had a majestic peak in front with a beautiful, gently sloping roofline and archways over the entry porch, and a second small archway on one side of the front which gave the illusion that the roof meets the ground. Next to that small arch stood the slender spire of a juniper tree rising above the peak.
But the beauty of the house was marred by its constant state of disrepair. It was never painted as long as I could remember. There were shingles that needed replacing. The wooden steps descending some 30 feet down the hillside to the sidewalk were always broken or shaky. My dad had these replaced when I was 10 or 11. But the weeds and giant cactus had taken over the yard. My dad wore a lift on his shoe from a bad car accident when he was in his 20s, and he was physically unable to weed the yard. Our yard was great fun to play in, but every summer, the fire department would come by to inspect the property, and I was usually the one there when they came, and it was me, of course, who would talk with the fireman who would tell me about the consequences of such a mess.
One can imagine how this played out in the mind of a young boy. I always took it on myself to clean up that yard, and—big surprise—I was never able to do it adequately. That job was not the responsibility of a boy, but my parents never explained that to me or brought in someone else to do it. Even one of the neighbors took it upon himself to tell me every chance he got how I should be out there working every day. I can’t tell you how many times I was out in that yard fearfully expecting the fire department to come by, and as a result, I grew up feeling uncomfortable around firemen. There were times when, standing outside, I would recognize someone walking or driving by, and I would duck down and hide. When someone came up the steps, I hid. Even into high school, when people drove me home, I would have them stop down the street to let me out so they wouldn’t see it.
I doubt my parents were ever aware of the turmoil these things brought into my life. Please don’t tell me I should have spoken with them about it: that really was not up to me. And anyway, back then, I simply assumed the yard was my responsibility. The guilt I lived with over that yard never should have happened, but it did. Children just seem to always think that anything bad that happens in their family is somehow their fault. By the time they are mature enough to realize it, it’s too late, the damage is done. Hiding becomes a way of life—and it certainly did for me.