My first memories as a child are of my dad at church. He was the volunteer youth leader in the late 70s and early 80s at a small rural church in the unrecognized corner of the world in which I grew up. In my mind, he is dressed in tube socks, all-too-short shorts and a T-shirt, playing basketball, sitting around a campfire, caring for teenagers. Telling them about Jesus.
The 70s was a rich time for youth culture, particularly in American Christianity. The Jesus Movement was producing musicians, writers and revolutionaries who made Jesus-following “cool” for an entire generation of students who would eventually imagine, build and grow what we now know to be the church in America.
My dad’s version of this was a little gathering of 9-10 kids in a cramped attic room at First Baptist Church in Steamboat Rock, Keith Green 8-tracks, and studies on the parables. All by the light of a small 2 foot by 3 foot stained-glass window. I have written at length other places that those few years in his youth were the happiest of his short 54-years-life. Many people said my dad should have been a pastor, which in those days meant going to seminary for years, getting the right credentials, earning your spot in the front of the room. Something that was practically not in the cards for my dad.
Though he never earned the professional Christian card, the youth group grew. Grew the way all worthy growth grows: by investment, by time, by sacrifice and by love. The letters his then-adult youth kids wrote to him as he was dying 30 years later attest to such things. That little group produced pastors, missionaries, teachers, church administrators, counselors, writers and artists. It produced men and women of deep and abiding faith who since have spent their years paying forward the small but meaningful investment of a man who just simply loved teenagers.
This weekend, after a long absence, I returned to that little (though now not so little) church in rural Iowa. It had just recently gone through a major renovation and a dear friend of my family’s took us on an end-to-end tour. It was a joyous lap of “remember what was here before?” “do you recognize this?” and stories of the simple-yet-profound process the church had taken to transition its community from its staid, familiar sanctuary to the modern, accessible surroundings I saw that day.
Near the end of the tour, we climbed to the second floor which had been sectioned off for student ministries, now reaching nearly 100 students weekly. This, in a town of 350 people. The room was bright and stylized and full of life, as such a space should be. Around the back was a sectioned off quarter for foosball, couches and video games, at the end of which was a small two-foot by three-foot stained-glass window.
“Is this what I think it is?” I asked myself.
At the back corner of the now several-hundred square-foot youth space was a cramped corner, low-slanting ceilings. I knew it in a moment. This was the spot where 40 years before my father had launched a little band of Jesus-following students. A band that over the last decades had become a local revolution with hundreds of lives in its wake.
I grabbed my three small boys and ushered them over.
“You never got to meet your Papa, my Dad, but I want to tell you something about him. Right here, in this spot, he got to do his favorite thing in the whole world. He got to tell people about Jesus. It started with just a few kids, and today it is hundreds. So, if you ever wonder if your life matters, never wonder. You are a part of something revolutionary.”
I ugly-cried through every word.
My dad was never very good at the kind of games which get a man a good life. He stumbled on the rungs of the corporate ladder, could never muster a scratch golf-game, had a limited list of people he would have called friends. He had rough hands and as time wore him on, life stole from him again and again. His funeral wasn’t populated by the powerful; there is no marker or monument to his life’s work. For a number of years he made his living picking up trash.
But my dad was heroic at the 100 Years’ Game. The game where every move is measured, not by what it means for today, but for what it means ten decades, four generations from now. He planted seeds in soils which appeared infertile and then watered, watered, watered, until something beautiful grew in its place.
In an age of “likes,” “follows,” and immediate reactions to our every move, men like my dad would have been ill-fit. He couldn’t type so it’s unlikely that he would have done much good on Facebook. We live in a day where our actions are measured by how quickly we can get a return on investment, a proof of the worth of our time, an immediate affirmation, lest our self-esteem slip by a decimal point. This was not my father’s game. He sat in a little room, by the light of a stained-glass window and played the 100 Years’ Game. A game where his every move would only be measured beyond his lifetime. There would be no accounting of his riches within the walls of his living days.
Every time I think of him, I am reminded of what makes a life. It is not what we do in the living, it is what we do in the giving. Of ourselves, of our fears, of our imaginations, of our faith in a better world and in each other. And I think about that little space…
“Right here, in this spot, he got to do his favorite thing in the world. He got to tell people about Jesus.”