First, It was Roy Rogers and Idaho

My parents, eager to fill my voracious reading habits, purchased an encyclopedia set. Once bought, and stretching across quite a bit of bookshelf real estate, a new volume was added each year with extensive highlights of the prior year’s new history. It was the Compton’s Pictured Encyclopedia. I devoured every word, A through Z. When the volume summarizing the new and significant events of last year arrived by mail, I plopped it on my lap and started reading. I was, and am, a sponge for everything from essential history to useless trivia.

Likely influenced most by watching Roy Rogers on Saturday mornings, I knew I wanted to be a cowboy when I grew up. (A note here: I am still growing up.) I wanted to ride horses, gallop across the open range, save damsels in distress, and do daring deeds while having an “Aw, shucks, it weren’t nothing” attitude of humility. Tip the hat, trot off into the sunset, and make sure the horses were fed before I was.

I studied those pictures and maps and charts in my handy Compton’s Encyclopedia. I discovered my future in the middle of the I section. I for Iceland and isosceles and insulin. I for Idaho! On the map of Idaho, there were—like every other state—tiny pictures. Those pictures symbolized what went on inside the state’s borders, like farming, industry, manufacturing, and so forth. Idaho had more tiny horses than any other state (even Texas), according to my extensive comparisons.

I would move to Idaho, raise horses, and be happy. (And save the occasional damsel). By ten or so years of age, I had my life pretty much planned out.

By high school, that changed. Was it being awed by Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird? Was it hearing my parents speak with admiration about lawyers? Was it watching Perry Mason or the Defenders on television? While I can pinpoint the marriage of Roy Rogers’ saving the day every Saturday morning and spying all those horse graphics in Idaho that led to my cowboy dreams, the shift to law is hazy. But law became my goal.

Then came God.

And seminary.

And ordination.

And doubts and joy, failures and epiphanies.

When I ponder what matters most to me, it is hugely influenced by my staggering through seminary, by my experiences in churches, by listening to and supporting the folks in the pews, by risking to proclaim the good news with all of my obvious and hidden flaws.

God is ever the One Who Nudges. Jesus is forever elusive and compelling. The Spirit—or Holy Ghost as was oft said when I attended a Baptist church as a kid—beckons me to keep growing (in spite of myself). For me, the Trinity is as ineffable as it is irksome.

I know why I have my beliefs about the subjects that tear our country apart. Whether it’s abortion or same-gender marriage or climate change or all the other wounds festering in our society, I blame Jesus. Though he proclaimed much more than “Love your neighbor,” following him always boomerangs to that brief, easy-to-understand, impossible-to-achieve invitation. How can three words be so difficult to live out and live into?

Now retired, God still haunts me. My death is closer, though it’s always been and always will be the next moment away. As a person of faith, I am flummoxed by how much my country is overgrown with hate and distrust and malaise. Love your neighbor is discarded for blaming, accusing, and obfuscating. We have become a nation of poor listeners and selective learners. Why anyone would want to spend even a moment with the likes of Tucker Carlson is beyond my comprehension. (Walter Cronkite must be in anguish, wherever journalistic heaven is located.) How could any reasonable citizen elect a Madison Cawthorn or Marjorie Green into the hallowed, hypocritical halls of Congress?

I no longer understand our country.

I barely understand my faith.

Though pessimism laps at the door of my heart, Jesus remains. Love your neighbor, he said and says. Three blessed words. And so, God-haunted, beleaguered by the weary wail of our divided citizenry, I stumble forward. I still want to listen. I still want to learn.

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