In the late 90s, the Bible Belt was an almost mythological place to live if you were of the Evangelical persuasion. The economy was flush, your religious liberties weren’t really in jeopardy and you rested easy within your enclosed, profanity-free, abortionless corner of society. Oh the world may be falling apart everywhere else, but in our church and the 35 other churches within a square mile of each other, we were doing just fine, blissfully insolated within our bubble of Christendom.
As the sun began to set on that decade—the decade that gave us the Clintons, Power Rangers and Crystal Pepsi—a sort of educational exodus took place within the church. I wish I knew what ignited the craze but seemingly out of nowhere, parents began pulling their Super-Christian children out of public school in favor of home schooling them instead. It’s possible this phenomenon was overly-pronounced within our congregation and didn’t actually represent a wider shift within the Pentecostal church at large, but my church was my whole world at that point. It served as my barometer for most things. To that end, watching a large portion of my youth group friends flee their city’s schools and hop on the homeschool bandwagon felt, to me, like a cataclysmic shift.
Each had their own excuse as to why this was the right decision for them: they weren’t doing well in school, they weren’t great test takers, they didn’t fit in with the other kids (and a dozen other prosciutto-thin excuses). The loudest excuse was that they wanted to focus on their walk with God and the liberally-aligned public school system was a hindrance to their doing so. In the span of a single summer, the majority of my friends who were juniors and seniors jumped the public school ship and made plans to do their school work together in a spiritual-stumbling-block-free, demonically-exorcised environment.
So why did it matter? Their choices didn’t directly affect my life at all and on top of that, none of those people even went to my school. Well, it mattered because I wanted to be one of them. Put yourself back into your sixteen-year-old psyche, all pimples and frustrations and new body hairs and wilted self-esteem. Now imagine your friends who you only saw once or twice a week would be spending their weekdays together…without you. There would be new inside jokes, new stories about who said what that one time and you’d have to leave the party long before they did because you had to wake up and go to your stupid, satanic public school.
I couldn’t stand the thought of not being included. Imagining their carefree days together made me crazy and as such, I knew I needed to be homeschooled as well. It was the only logical answer and as such, I gave my best, most rehearsed pitch to my mother.
“Are you crazy? No.”
There wasn’t a moment of pause or a glimmer of consideration. She didn’t think about it or let me finish my sentence. I don’t think she even heard my second or third round of pleas. It was a simple, “No.” She even laughed as she walked away, like the Joker or one of the hyenas from The Lion King.
I’d made two big campaign promises. The first was that I’d make sure my school work was done daily—a necessary exercise in stating the obvious. The second was that I’d be able to work more at the ice cream shop—my first real job—which meant I could save money. That’s what I figured would be the selling point: the ability to save money. I imagined those words passing through her ear canal and translating to “Look how responsible my son is by tending to his future. This is a terrific idea and you are a child prodigy.” But like Ralphie’s daydreams in A Christmas Story, the reality was a chorus of “You know you won’t do that, you just want to sit around with your friends,” which sounded an awful lot like “You’ll shoot your eye out, you’ll shoot your eye out.”
Truth be told, I’d been spoiled. For two summers, I’d spent every day with my gang of church friends. We’d signed up to be a part of a discipleship program led by a woman we loved and respected not only as a leader, but also as our chosen mom-friend. Each weekday morning began at the church where we spent time dissecting scripture and attempting to funnel our adolescent confusion through the WWJD cipher. I know this doesn’t sound like a typical teenager’s idea of a great summer—choosing to spend it at church studying the Bible—but we were church kids who couldn’t get enough of both church stuff and each other. I’ve never regretted those summers. We became a group of friends who confided in each other the things we’d hesitate to disclose to our other friends and in my head, we did so while the chorus of “Friends Forever” sung by Zack, Kelly and the gang from Saved by the Bell played on repeat. I’ve always had very musical thought bubbles.
Plus, those summers weren’t all Super-Christian church stuff. Our afternoons were full of lunches at Wendy’s, pit stops for snow cones that tasted like wedding cake and cream soda, and laying in the sun at the Rosemeade neighborhood pool. We waded through creek waters to retrieve Frisbee golf discs and listened to music with the windows down because in so many of our first cars, the air conditioning was merely a suggestion of what cool air should feel like. We were carefree and unencumbered by any real responsibility; just concerts and cookouts and the crunch of the park grass between our toes.
But as August crept around the corner, the reality of school supplies, class schedules and required reading began to set in. That’s when the idea of homeschooling shone brightest. I wanted to ride this wave of friendship for as long as possible because as a teenager, your friendships seem to be the only things that matter. With age, we later discover a far more scattered reality—a realization that high school isn’t the glue we think it is. We wouldn’t always have those friends to lean on and we wouldn’t always have summer mornings together to give our lives a taut tethering to each other and to our faith. This wasn’t lost on the leader of our little discipleship group and she began to drive home the point that just as our faith connected us in that moment, it would also keep us grounded in the not-so-distant chapters of our lives.
She knew that the biggest issue facing a group of teenagers who’d been raised in the church was the survivability of our faith as the outside world opened up to us. In the late 90s, the internet was becoming something we used daily, our new Nokia cell phones with the interchangeable plastic covers connected us in a way no generation had been before, and more world-changing technology in the form of iPods and Napster were peeking from around the corner. Beyond our world changing, youth culture within the church was also experiencing the beginning quakes of what would become tectonic shifts. The acceptance of the decades-old church mentality of “do as I say because it’s always been done this way” was starting to wear off and the term “non-denominational” crept into church-going consciousness. She saw what we couldn’t see, that our faith needed roots to survive a world of rapid change.
She focused our studies that summer on Hebrews 11, the chapter that sums up and recaps the faith of the above-the-title names in the Bible. Noah, Abraham, Moses, Samson, David—all of DeMille’s movie stars of the B.C. era are there. The first verse is the catch-all statement from which the rest of the chapter expands and illustrates: Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.
We’d heard about faith every week in church and that meant something very specific to us. It’s the belief that this world isn’t a cosmic hoax and that the “something bigger” out there is, in fact, the God “Amazing Grace” was written about. It’s the faith that says the God of the universe—that epicenter of love and life—made both mountains and molehills and cares about each equally. It’s the faith that says the very God who went bang and made all things will show up for us in the form of an inner peace, a breeze, a sunset, or a friend with a latte. We don’t have to stress-fracture our brains over our place in eternity because it was figured out long before we showed up and our clunky, rusted-jalopy sort of faith will count for something in the end. Now that’s something to be optimistic about as a teenager when so much of the world doesn’t make sense.
That faith—that continued dialogue of Hebrews 11—permeated my outlook in a way that’s wound up being both durable and lasting. I’d been familiar and comfortable with the Judeo-Christian filtered component of faith since I was a kid, but that faith was mostly preventative. When I was young, I feared being “left behind” or being somehow erased from God’s “nice list.” For someone being told on repeat that the rapture was imminent and any sin could kick us off the list, those were extremely real fears. Those fears kept me scared and those fears kept me still. But that summer, in reading about all these uber-flawed people who somehow made the cut to be included in the Bible, I saw how time and time again, their faith brought them back. Oh they screwed up plenty, just like me, but God never left them. Gradually, the fears that gripped my neck like a vice and clouded my vision like a malfunctioning fog machine began to let up. Over the course of that summer, I felt the seedlings of joy beginning to spring up inside of me. Over time, that joy grew into hearty stalks, strong and towering, and in the constant forward motion in which life keeps our gear shifts, I became quite the optimist.
As a matter of fact, in the years since that summer, I’ve fielded comments from friends, strangers, dates, and exes who have said I am optimistic to the point of verging on obnoxious. I’ll accept that I can be obnoxious about a great many things—my passive aggressive behavior when someone is late, my defense of Thor being the greatest Avenger, the cheese-to-chip ratio of my nachos, even my black-and-white split-second judgments of seemingly gray situations—but I will never accept that my optimism is obnoxious and therefore should be tempered.
As every reality TV contestant has said to a judging panel while fighting back tears, “I’ve been through some things!” I’ve had to be downright militant in my fight for the optimism. I come from a long line of pessimists and I made the conscious decision to rewrite that narrative for myself. When your default is a glass-half-empty, it takes measured effort to alter the way you look at the glass that’s been poured for you. It required a lot of speaking life where they didn’t seem to be any, a lot of leaning on the side of positivity when everything around me seemed slanted the other direction, and a lot of mind-over-matter hippie nonsense. In all these ways, I fought for my happy.
That word: happy. So many people are on a lifelong quest for happiness as if it’s something to be collected, but true visceral happiness isn’t discovered like an ancient tomb full of treasure. Happiness is the joy that sifts through your brewer and is now ready for consumption. There’s a long list of things that make me happy, a list that includes cider in the fall, dinner with my cousins and the opening piano music from Forest Gump, but those things—as magnificent as they are—aren’t a sustainable form of happy. Sustainable happiness comes from the joy that’s already inside of me and that joy stems from my faith. From the deep-planted seed which is my faith in Love eternal, that joy shoots upward until it reaches the surface and manifests itself as relentless optimism for living fully on Earth.
There are many optimistic people walking the Earth and there are many people of faith as well, but when those people figure out how to braid those together, theirs is an unstoppable joy. Some might say their joy verges on obnoxious. It doesn’t mean a problem-free existence, but it does mean an undercurrent of joy even when life deals you a crappy hand. And as much as Hebrews 11 is a list of biblical greats being great, it’s also a list of folks who were dealt some really crappy hands. But despite their less-than-ideal circumstances (and their flaws), they had their faith and that faith brought them their joy. That’s what I learned that summer: the interconnectedness of my faith and my joy could not, should not, and would not be separated.
As the summer ended, I went back to the den of darkness that was my public school and began class again, except that year, I had a seed of Hebrews 11 growing inside of me. I was exactly where I was supposed to be and had I jumped ship, I’d have missed out on a million life-changing moments. And, as it turned out, the novelty of my friends’ homeschool experience wore off when I realized staying home and doing homework also meant mothers helicoptering, extended hours working at fast food restaurants and no Homecoming games. I didn’t feel as left out as I thought. My mother was right, as she tends to be. My place was in school with Satan. It gave me balance.
Ryan’s book of essays, I Really Like My Hands Today, is available now on Amazon.