I can remember my teenage years, or at least I have memories of them that may or may not be accurate. At my age, memory can be a fickle thing – dependable at one point in time and then totally unreliable a moment later. I try to live with the disclaimer that my memory may or may not have any connection to reality.
However, I am somewhat certain that when I was a teenager, I was confident in my intelligence. One of the reasons for my certainty is that such intellectual confidence seems to be a universal experience for those between the ages of thirteen and twenty. No doubt, I was no different.
There is that point in time, usually somewhere between ages 15 and 17, when you are convinced that you are one of the smartest people in the world, or at least in your family. Your parents are idiots. They don’t even know what’s cool, proving my point by using the word “cool,” which is probably not cool any longer.
I have raised three boys and now I have two grandchildren who are teenagers. I know that look they give when what you said or did was the dumbest thing they have ever heard or seen. Sometimes it comes with a smirk as they shake their head and other times they just walk away like they never heard you. I know I was just like that. That’s what kids fail to understand – the reason we know them so well is because we were once them.
While being smarter than anyone else is a near universal teenage experience, so is waking up one morning, probably about age 19 or 20, and realizing that you are really stupid. At least this realization happens to the majority of folks. There is probably about ten percent who never wake up to this truth and they go through life as obnoxious know-it-alls who everyone hates.
My revelation came to me after I had moved out of parent’s house to a new city to go to work. After a week or so, payday came. I went to the bank and opened a checking account. I was living the life – on my own in a new town, making my own money, and toting a book of blank checks in my pocket with my name on them. It doesn’t get much better than that.
That night as I was reflecting on my achievements, I opened the checkbook to admire my account balance once again, and it struck me. I didn’t know how to fill out a check. What were these blank lines for? I knew I needed to sign my name, but where? Imagine how dumb I would have felt at the Safeway checkout line asking the clerk how to write a check. This was long before ATM’s so my money was stuck in the bank until I learned how to accomplish this task.
Swallowing my pride a little, I made a long distance call home to ask my Dad how to write a check. It was going to be a little harder to think I was smarter than him after that small piece of humble pie.
That job didn’t work out (it was with a radio station so what do you expect) so I returned home, got a real job, and lived in my old room with my parents. When it came time to purchase my first car, I was a little apprehensive so I asked my Dad to go with me. He didn’t really want to because car shopping was not an enjoyable thing for him but he realized I needed help. He might have been afraid I would try to write out a check for the entire balance.
I found the car I wanted at a nearby Ford dealership, a 1970 Mustang with very low mileage, and Daddy went to help me negotiate a deal. There was a lot of back and forth and as we got closer and closer together on the number I was chomping at the bit. This car would soon be mine.
Then, out of nowhere, my Dad and the salesman stopped haggling, just fifty dollars apart. Neither was willing to budge. There was some uncomfortable silence, I was fidgeting, but there was no more negotiating.
Finally, my Dad broke the silence as he said, “Come on Terry, let’s go home.”
What? We were going to leave my dream car over a fifty dollar difference. I didn’t mind paying the extra; what’s the big deal?
As I was getting up to follow my Dad outside, the salesman finally blinked. “Ok,” he said, “You’ve got a deal.”
My Dad got a lot smarter that day as I realized he knew what he was doing, even when it came to doing something he didn’t enjoy. He must have had a similar experience with his father because Daddy told me one time when he turned twenty-one his father changed from being the dumbest man in the world to be the smartest man in the world.
This lesson about my Dad was reinforced just a few days after I brought my new car home. It had a small oil leak so I took it back to the dealer to get it fixed. They put it on the rack, did something, and told me it was repaired. A few days later there were a few more new drops of oil on the driveway so I took it back. This time they worked a few minutes longer before they sent me on my way.
A couple of days later, Daddy came home and noticed new oil on his driveway. He told me to get in the car and follow him to the Ford dealer. When we got there, he took the keys from me, tossed them on the salesman’s desk and said, “Call me when you get this fixed.”
The next day I picked up my car and it never leaked again. The gap between my father’s intelligence and mine was pretty wide.
After that experience, I started on a journey to learn about life. I first put aside the notion that I was already smart enough. There was much to learn. My experience again was probably pretty typical of young adults. As I learned something new, I was always tempted to think I had discovered the ultimate truth.
Being a visual learner, I have always loved to read. Certainly this is not the only, or even the best way to learn, but it has served me well. So I sailed through Junior College, College, and graduate school continually reading and learning. The reading continued, and still does to this day. I have learned a great deal over the years. Without hesitation, I declare that I am much smarter than I was as a teenager.
Along the way, however, there were some interesting things that happened. Occasionally I would come to the conclusion I had learned enough about a particular subject to declare that I was certain about it. I reached this point of certainty many times. I was confident that I knew who was and who was not going to heaven. I had few doubts about the difference between right and wrong. I trusted my ability to distinguish the good guys from the bad guys, even if they were not wearing hats.
I came to a point where I created several boxes that made life comfortable. I had a theological box that explained all my religious beliefs. I had a political box to help me know how to vote. There was also a social box that allowed me to live in the proper manner. Essentially, I took all that knowledge learned from reading, and education, and living, and developed a framework of things that were always right. There is great comfort in being sure about almost everything.
It would have been much easier if I would have shut down my education at that point. I could have lived out my life in a very comfortable world, knowing that I might not have all the answers, but I had enough that there was little to worry about. In fact, many people choose that course of action. I know a lot of folks who quit learning about the time they turned fifty. They have not changed one belief or opinion in decades. I couldn’t do that.
I kept learning. Not always by choice, and certainly not always by reading books. It happened because life continued to happen, and I was unwilling to simply ignore inconsistencies in my boxes.
Let me provide one of the more obvious examples. I had always been taught and came to the conclusion myself that divorce is wrong. If you have been divorced there is something wrong with you, you are “unclean” in a sense. Certain things, especially in the religious world, are off limits for you. This was a very comfortable position in my world of conservative Christianity in the late twentieth century. I could have shut my world down and closed the door on changing that position – I was confident I was correct.
Then my son got divorced. I walked with him through the whole experience, and I saw the pain and agony. I witnessed the hurt of tearing apart two who had become “one flesh.” The Bible says that God hates divorce and I now know more clearly than ever what that means. He hates divorce because it hurts everyone involved. There is nothing good about divorce. It causes pains that are deep and often leaves scars that will never go away. It means that families have to learn new ways to relate, and children must adapt to being shuffled between two worlds. I am with God on this one, I also hate divorce.
But I am also with God in that I don’t hate divorced people. I have a new appreciation for their struggles and pain, and it certainly does no good for me to add to that struggle by treating them as if they are unclean. Failing at a marriage does not make one a failure. As long as two people get married, and at least one of them is a sinner, there will be divorces. God is in the business of dispensing grace and that is what I want to be doing for those who are hurting and trying to get back on their feet.
I could share many other issues where I have learned similar lessons. Just when I think I had it all figured out, life happened. Remember, I have consistently said I am getting smarter. This means it is not necessary for me to “experience” everything before I can understand what it is about. For example, I don’t need to have a child announce to me that they are gay before I can understand the struggle for parents that do hear those words. Nor do I need to be gay myself before I can comprehend what it means to be ostracized by family, friends, and the church. It is not even necessary for me to know if homosexuality is a matter of birth or choice in order to love those who are hurting.
It is much harder for me to confidently say that something is always right or something is always wrong. There needs to be more options than right or wrong. I realize this opens me up to criticism from many of you who do have it all figured out. But I ask you to be patient with me because I don’t live in a black or white world. My world has many shades of gray.
Now, you might protest and say that I am not really getting smarter, that I have just given up and accepting everyone and everything. I understand your position, but I don’t think that is an accurate assessment. For me, what I have come to realize is that I am not going to be judged on what others do, but on what I do. I am only responsible for me, not you or anyone else.
The Bible seems to indicate that the basis of God’s judgment will be threefold. First, do I love Jesus. Second, do I follow Him. And third, how do I relate to the downtrodden and needy. If I could sum it up succinctly, I would suggest salvation means to accept God’s grace willfully and distribute it to others cheerfully. I will not be held accountable for keeping the right rules, being a member of the right political party, voting for the right candidate, or shouting the loudest at the right religious or political rally.
Another amazing thing I have realized recently is that I will not be held accountable for how well you do things either. In other words, my job is not to worry about how well you are doing your job. I have a responsibility for helping you experience the grace of God, but what you do with that grace is up to you.
Consequently, I have done away with many of those boxes where I kept people. I no longer have to worry about whether you are in or out or if you are good or bad. It doesn’t mean I don’t have opinions. I have numerous opinions about almost everything, but I no longer need to condemn those who do not share my opinion.
I am much smarter than I have ever been, and I hope I will be even smarter tomorrow (I’m not ready to quit learning). Yet, at the same time, there are fewer and fewer things that I am sure about. You might think that such a condition makes life difficult, but the reality is that it makes life much easier.
There is a really old joke about a young preacher who decided to deliver a sermon on raising children. He did not allow the fact that he had no children stand in his way. He titled the sermon, “The Ten Commandments of Raising Children.”
Several years later, after having a couple of children who were now school age, he reworked the sermon and changed the title a bit to, “The Ten Suggestions for Raising Children.”
The children grew older and became teenagers so once again he reworked the sermon and titled it, “The Ten Things You Might Want to Try in Raising Children.”
After many years and the wear and tear of parenthood, the children were grown and he tried one last time and titled the sermon, “Ten Things That Don’t Work When Raising Children.”
I am that pastor and you could tell the same story about me concerning numerous other issues and subjects. Experience can be an extremely valuable teacher. If you find yourself at odds with someone with more experience, it would probably be a good idea to revisit your opinions. You shall rise up before the grayheaded and honor the aged, and you shall revere your God; I am the LORD. (Lev. 19:32)
I have spent a lifetime trying to understand God and I can testify that He is much harder to figure out than I ever imagined.