Good writing, with a strong point and with life oozing out.

Following our Life

April 7, 2009
“Everybody’s got a story
You have to write your own”
Between college and seminary, I was for a single summer a very interim youth pastor in my home church in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Filling the seat of the man who was my most influential mentor and truest guide during my teen years. The man who had made a hasty and messy exit from both professional ministry and his marriage mere months before. Hugely inexperienced, I was doing my best to follow his example (the youth pastor part, not the exiting part).

There was one kid in the Jr. High group who stood out. Jon was the kind of kid that you love, but who scares you: smart-assed, quick-witted, and hilarious. Thin as a razor, and twice as sharp. Bouncing through the youth group, and spreading his levity like a wildfire. The exact kind of kid who threatens the very foundations of a group based on command-and-control leadership: not a bad kid, but a kid who upsets the proper order of things. Jon was trouble, and I had just enough sense to realize that I was in trouble, too. I quickly decided to trust the adage, Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer, doing my best to befriend this mercurial young man and get on his good side. To show him that I was cool, even if I couldn’t let on at church. So we’d share the occasional meal together, and I vividly remember taking him to the Pauly Shore vehicle ‘Encino Man‘. Which he had seen before, but which made me nervous, since it was rated PG, and I was supposed to be a Youth Pastor, not a Youth Corrupter.

My gambit must have paid off, because I made it to the end of August and returned to school. I wish I could say I stayed in touch with Jon and the rest of the kids, but I didn’t. I’d see some of them when I’d be home for holidays, but within a few years they had mostly taken their exodus from church, and I was off to live my life.

Fifteen years later, I’m back in the same town, leaning into a torrent of sound, seeing this same person– with all of the same mannerisms and gestures and same mischevious glint in his eye– still holding court over a crowd of people in his hometown. Only now he’s got a stage, and a microphone, and a band thundering behind him. Now, he’s the tattooed and talented lead singer of a great rock-and-roll band. The same, only different.

Now, I’m the guy in the back row. Now, I’m the Middle-Aged Man– so lame that he wears his winter coat to a show– hoping that I can meet this effusive, charismatic, larger-than-life force of nature. Now, I’m wishing I was him, chasing his dream by grinding out 10-month-a-year tours, finding some way to stay connected to his wife and kids in LA while he lives on a bus with a real, working, contracted band. Now, I’m wanting to tell everyone within earshot, “Hey, I know that guy!”

Watching him perform, I wish I knew then what I know now. I wish that I had let down my guard, and let him see the real me. I wish I had tried to be his friend, instead of his pastor. I wish I had eyes to see then that he wasn’t a misfit for all of us, we were a misfit for him. I wish I would have read between his lines to see the burdens he must have been carrying. I wish I could have known that I was eating lousy pizza with the perfect archetype of a gifted artist and entertainer. But most of all, I wish there had been a page in the youth pastor playbook that would have allowed me to say, “Jon, you’re right: you really don’t fit in around here. Why don’t you get some tats, move to LA, and join a rock band? That would be a great career path for you!” But there is no way for conventional institutions to do that kind of unconventional thinking, no way for kids like Jon to learn these things except by taking the hard path.

I did get my chance to talk with him, thanks to my well-connected sister, who it turns out is a good friend of the band. If he didn’t really remember me, he graciously pretended to. Talking with him, it was obvious that for all of his stage presence and rock demeanor, he is a genuinely nice and humble and regular guy. He’s just a regular guy with a crazy/cool day job. So I celebrated his station in life, gave him props for making it, and to the band and their talent and expertise and artistry and spirit. I reminded him of what a scrawny, smart-assed punk he used to be (true to form, he agreed and shot back with the zinger, “I always said that being a smart-ass is better than being a dumbass!”), and I told him that I wished I would have had more imagination back then, more insight and intuition and guts to encourage him to follow his heart and his talents.

“That’s okay,” he said, “we all have to take our own path, and figure our lives out for ourselves.”

Still smart. Wise, too. Hey, I know that guy!

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