I'm so happy to be here!

We Had Your Grandpa’s Back

I was nineteen. Youngest member of our church softball team. Since I’m writing the story, I’ll just get this out of the way: I was a great ball player. (Do know that anyone who remembers that differently today is of a very advanced age, so …)

Our church team became a healing ministry. We were a battered congregation. Our pastor, our pitcher (and the man who would go on to become your Grandpa H), was going through a very difficult season in his life. A particularly pious little fellow named James had undertaken a campaign to have him removed from ministry. 

Your Grandma Shaw was an elder in the church at that time, doing exactly what you’d imagine Grandma Shaw doing as an elder—planning parties! 

I was in another part of the house one day when I heard her shout, “THAT LITTLE SHIT!” I won’t lie, I took a quick inventory—What the heck did I do?

I found at the kitchen table, letter in hand. Shaking. She was furious. 

Let me break her outburst down: 

THAT—this dude, James, just earned himself a definite article; a specific designation in Grandma’s eyes. Whatever he’d done, he’d really stepped in it.

LITTLE—James was vertically challenged. Significantly. With an acute case of Napoleon Complex

SHIT—Grandma didn’t often use words like shit. Your Grandpa Shaw, on the other hand, he was doubly gifted … in profanity and sagacity. He had a deep well of shit-infused smarts to pull from; things like, “You can paint a pile of shit any color you want, it’s still gonna stink!” See what I mean? Profanity and wisdom. When Grandma got really angry, she’d channel him.

THAT LITTLE SHIT (hereafter TLS) was Grandma’s take on James … and his letter.

The specifics are water under the bridge all these years later. But know that Grandma Shaw took this letter as her heart’s call to stand strongly with Grandpa H. As an elder in the church, she did just that. 

A side note: Recently, we came across letters, cards and notes from this period of time, including Grandma’s handwritten Bible study notes on how Jesus called us to love, and not judge others. There is also a handwritten card from Grandpa H. to Grandma Shaw, thanking her for her support. What a treasure trove!

Recognizing that many were hurting, she focused on healing—Phyllis’ way. Hoe-Downs, Oktoberfests, Variety Shows, Bazaars— Hell yes! You wanted to go to the church where your Grandma was an elder! 

Back to our softball team and its healing ministry—

TLS/James led an exodus that included a handful of families. Friday nights offered those who remained a little respite of family fun; men on the field, wives and kids in the stands, laughter and church family fun. 

Then came news that TLS was pitching for another church-league team … and we were scheduled to meet them on the field. Hehe.

We took the field; Grandpa H took the mound. Sarcasm and snarky comments streamed out of their dugout. I was way out in right field, and I could hear it. 

Dave was our second-baseman. An undercover drug enforcement agent, a day at the office for him meant cozying up to killers, infiltrating drug trafficking rings. Every day was life-or-death. He was bat-shit crazy. 

I knew something was gonna break loose. TLS was running his mouth. Dave was glaring into their dugout. Grandpa H, for his part, went on as if he wasn’t hearing a thing. Pitch. Pitch. Pitch. 

TLS stepped up to the plate. First pitch, he lined the ball through the hole and into left field. He rounded first, stumps-a-grinding, determined to stretch it into a double. Eyes on the ball in play, he never saw it coming— 

Dave threw a leg out and cleaned TLS’s feet right out from under him. What a sight! Ass-over-tea-kettle, your Grandpa Shaw would’ve said. A colossal belly flop, a mushroom cloud of dust, and a magnificent divot 10 feet short of second base—both dugouts emptied, like a real big-league rhubarb! 

TLS popped up … mouth first. His life flashed before my eyes. The umpire got in the middle of the scrum and called off the game, declaring it a forfeit … for both teams. 

The ritual after our games was to assemble at a local sports pub for … fellowship. Good Presbyterians, that meant platters of wings and buckets of beer! We’d just settled in when someone said TLS and his team pulled in. A voice of reason reasoned, “Let’s be calm. They are our brothers in Christ.” Dave hollered back as he headed for the door, “Yeah, I’m just gonna go lay hands on my brothers.”

I was nineteen, young and dumb. Let’s rumble! I mean … we had Dave.

We spilled out the door as TLS and his teammates were just getting out of their cars. Words were exchanged. Enough talk, Dave stepped off the curb, pulled off his t-shirt, and shouted something along the lines of ‘Who’s first?’ Car doors. Headlights. Taillights. GONE.

We went back to our beer. With our pastor, our pitcher … and your Grandpa.  

Jump up, Bub!

Napoleon

Generational gap between my generation and my kids’ generation summed up in one word: Napoleon.

My generation hears Napoleon, we think Bonaparte. Theirs thinks Dynamite. 

My generation hears the term Napoleon Complex, we start singing the old Randy Newman song, “Short people, got no reason …” Their generation pictures someone who is obsessed with ligers. 

If you’re of my generation, you just said, “What the hell is a liger?”

Many of my generation have no idea who Napoleon Dynamite is. What’s really sad? Many of my kids’ generation have no idea who Napoleon Bonaparte is.

I am a good dad. All four of my kids know both Napoleons.

I'm so happy to be here!

Stable

I would go back to those days if I could. I’d love to have lived in those days as an adult, raising my family. Those were easier times, I believe. 

If I had to choose a word—stable. Stable parents. Stable home. Stable routines. Everyone was where they were supposed to be, when they were supposed to be there, all the time. 

I was pretty well insulated as a kid. Certainly shit went on—that’s what shit does, it goes on. And in every family. But in that window of my life—and as childhood really ought to be—Mom and Dad, even my siblings, kept things in pretty idyllic terms in front of me. 

My dad had two heart-attacks when I was a kid. I vaguely remember he was sick. But I never heard or saw anything, from anyone, that suggested cause for concern. 

My sister got pregnant when she was sixteen. I was four. No doubt it was scandalous at the time, but I knew nothing of that. Life continued to be entirely consistent—sister got married, had a kid … she’d grown up. All is well. Stable.

All the families I knew—again, from my point of view—seemed as stable and consistent. Speaking in today’s language, they were all two-parent homes. Back in those days, two-parent homes were all we knew. The nuclear family. 

I did have a very limited purview. We weren’t allowed in Greg’s house; we were afraid to go to Peter’s house. 

Hardly ever saw Greg’s parents. Caught a glimpse of his mom every so often, sticking her head out to yell for him to come inside. We always had to stay outside, there. No kids were allowed in. Ever. You have to pee? Greg would point to a hidden pee-spot in a corner garden. If you had to do anything other than pee, well, you were shit out of luck. 

I didn’t care that we couldn’t go in the house. Greg’s backyard was the bomb! (And I didn’t mind pissing in the garden.) Landscaped with hills and rocks, mulch and sand, it was perfect for our make believe wars—all of us kids had admirable collections of army men, cowboys and Indians, and GI Joe action figures; horses, field artillery, jeeps and tanks. Greg’s backyard—you’d have to have seen it to fully understand.

Peter’s folks seemed nice enough. We kids were always a little nervous to go over there—his parents were real religious. That was the reason Peter couldn’t come out to play Fridays after school and Saturday. That was the reason Peter had to go to Jew School.

I should explain— 

Peter went to the Jewish Community Center once a week for religious classes … “sorta like a Sunday School” he explained to us. Just not on Sunday. Griffin coined it Jew School.

Peter was a good-natured, self-deprecating humor sort of kid. If you’d ever seen the kid’s halting overbite, you’d recognize what a merciful gift that disposition was for him to possess. Peter, himself, began referring to it that way; “I can’t come tomorrow. I’ve got Jew School.”

Mom tried to explain the difference between Peter’s Jewish beliefs, and those of our Christian family. Best I recall, Jesus was the only difference; Christians believe in Him, Jewish people don’t. “And that’s why Peter doesn’t celebrate Christmas,” she explained, “because it’s about Jesus’ birth.” 

Made sense. There he is, right there in the manger scene on our hearth each Christmas—baby Jesus, in the middle of it all. 

Not sure where Santa Claus fit into our Christmas story. But, I’m damn glad he did! Santa brought the goods in those days! Got a bike from him one year. A real leather football, another. There was the year he gave me a Captain and Tennille tape … sort of sucked on that one. (That gift led to my introduction to the word gay. Greg Griffin, of course. A story for another time.) 

Santa went to every kid’s house, as I understood it. The only reason Santa wouldn’t go to your house and leave presents was if you were a bad boy. Parents leverage Santa to get kids to behave. Works, too! I was one respectful and compliant child as Christmas approached. No Elf-on-a-Shelf bullshit. Santa knew! Like he was omniscient. 

Really twisted parents would hit you with, “If you don’t behave, I’ll call Santa right now!” Kids were like, Oh shit! Mom has Santa’s number?!?! (My parents never did that to me. Doug may have.) 

Peter was a really good kid. He did all that religious stuff and never complained. And obedient? He made sure he was home on time, every time. The kid never got grounded. He was exactly the kind of kid Santa visits. So what gives?

Greg explained that Santa didn’t go to Peter’s house because “Santa doesn’t like Jews.” 

I asked Mom. I didn’t have to tell her Greg said it. She knew. And I knew what was coming: “You are not to play with that boy!” That happened … a lot. 

Mom assured me, Santa loves everyone. But he only comes to the houses where people believe in him. Like a Santa gospel. Peter’s family’s faith—the Jewish faith—doesn’t believe in Santa. But Christians, like us … we do. And I should tell you, I wasn’t the least bit confused by this. Made all the sense in the world to me. But damn! I’d be missing Greg for a while. And his yard. Mostly his yard. 

Did'ya blow?

Cooties & Companionship

Q: Do I remember choosing?

[A friend of mine—both a believer and gay—asked me this question in the context of a larger question: Is sexual orientation a choice (as evangelical Christianity espoused for years)?] 

A: For me, whether I liked girls or boys was never a question. It was more like a current I found myself in … orientation sorted itself out. I don’t remember choosing.

What do I remember? Katherine—Stephanie—Susie—Ellen—Melissa—Michelle—Mary-Katherine. Them, I remember. 

Katherine was fun. Stephanie was scary. Susie was pretty. Ellen was different. Melissa was just what you do when you’re in fifth grade. Michelle was … no doubt about it, I like girls! And Mary-Katherine? I damn near became a Catholic! 

Katherine was an across-the-street neighbor, and first friend who was a girl. We were four. You know how it goes—everyone doted over us, ‘They’re so cute!’ They referred to us teasingly as boyfriend and girlfriend. So there you have it: Katherine was my first girl.

Confession: Katherine was also my first kiss—a story I’ll save for another time. Greg Griffin dared us. Greg, of course, is the kid Mom forbid me from playing with after he told all of us neighborhood kids the reason Santa Claus didn’t go to Peter Marks’ house is because Santa doesn’t like Jews.

Pre-school introduced me to a wider group of friends and activities. And Stephanie. 

4-year-old pre-K at Brother Book’s All American Christian Day School. Yes, looking back it seems every bit as goofy as the name suggests—sort of a hybrid mix of staunch conservative, by-the-book (King James version, of course) Christianity, and radically conservative patriotism. We little cherubs were all dressed in red, white and blue; girls in long, blue skirts, white cover-it-all blouses, with red scarves; boys in blue pleated slacks, white collared shirts, and big-ass red bow ties. Hellfire and brimstone meet ‘Merica. 

My first interaction with girls other than Katherine, and none of them were as much fun as she was. Stephanie was pure evil. She pinched me every day at nap time. I told Mom. She said she’d speak to my teacher. 

Doug, always helpful, advised: “When a girl pinches you, that means she likes you. Just pinch her back—a firm pinch, like this,” digging his fingers into my side, “then she’ll be your girlfriend.”

I tried to separate myself from Stephanie at nap time. Somehow, her mat always ended up next to mine. Every damn day, the teacher would say, “Quiet now! The lights are out!” … and PINCH!

I was the star of the school Christmas pageant. THE star. You know, the one that shone down on baby Jesus. Mom made my costume—a huge cardboard star covered with tin foil. I quickly realized that my star reflected the stage lights and the more I moved, the more rays of light danced around the room. I didn’t have any lines. I was too busy strobing. 

Stephanie was the angel. No shit. 

Kindergarten meant two things: No more naps! And no more Stephanie! Like Brother Book always said: Praise the Lord!

It must have been some sort of kindergarten orientation thing. Mom and I went to “my big school” to see the classroom I’d be in, and to meet Mrs. Woods, my kindergarten teacher. It was cool—got to claim my cubby-hole, find my place on the mat, and practice sitting down and folding my hands. I learned I could wear regular clothes—not those silly Uncle Sam suits.

Then I saw her.

As Mom was pointing out all the cool things around the room—colors, shapes, letters and numbers—my eyes caught sight of a little blonde-haired girl, her hair in bouncy pigtails. She wore a pink frilly dress, lacy white socks and saddle-shoes. I couldn’t look away. 

I was five. I had no clue of anything romantic at this point. I just knew I liked looking at her. Pretty is something you like to look at, right? Pretty flowers. Pretty scenery. Pretty pictures. Susie was my first awareness of a pretty girl.  

The school year began. At this age, boys played with boys. Girls had cooties. But I really wanted to befriend Susie, somehow. Much of the year went by. Then, a stroke of genius: I could invite Susie to my 6th birthday party! 

I broached the subject with Mom. She was all for the idea of inviting Susie. Win! But … Mom insisted that if I was inviting Susie, I’d need to invite all the girls from my class. Steep price to pay, but worth it. Party invites out; everyone was coming. It would be epic—pin the tail on the donkey; clothes-pin drop; yard games; cake and ice cream; and presents, of course. The countdown was on.

The Elton John song Crocodile Rock was all over the radio. “I remember when rock was young, me and Susie had so much fun…” In my little mind—even though there wasn’t an us—it was our song.

The day of my party arrived. This may have been the single most anticipated day of my life thus far; Susie is coming over! Then the phone rang, I heard Mom’s end of the conversation. I knew something was wrong. Felt it. Mom sounded concerned, and then ended the call, “… we hope Susie feels better soon.” NO!

I’d never have another chance. A few days after my party, Mrs. Woods addressed our class. “Today is Susie’s last day. She and her family are moving to …” I couldn’t tell you where. May as well have been the other side of the world. That night our song came on the radio, soundtrack to my first heartbreak—“The years went by and rock just died; Susie went and left me for some foreign guy…”

A couple years passed. I was eight. Diann got her driver’s license. Mom and Dad laid down the ground rules: She wanted to drive anywhere—especially if there would be any hormonal teenage boys there—take the little brother along. Ingenuous! I was birth-control.

Diann’s boyfriend had a little sister—Ellen. She was an older woman. She was nine. 

And she was different. She was so intriguing to me. She was … serious. I was in beginning band, playing—and I use that word very loosely—trombone, like my big brother. Ellen was in a youth orchestra. I practiced my trombone as little as possible. She practiced for hours, every day. And liked it! Serious … ly. 

I never really interacted with Ellen. I’d like to think it’s because she was so devoted to her music. More likely, it’s because I was a pain-in-the-ass 8-year-old, and absolutely not serious. 

Fast forward a few years—5th grade. All of a sudden, girls were attractive. All of us guys were having our coming-of-adolescence experiences at the same time. Girls were on our radar. The question, for both the boys and the girls, became ‘Who are you going out with?’ To be cool, you pretty much had to have an answer to that question. 

That’s where Melissa came in. 

She was a Schultz, and I am a Shaw. They sat us alphabetically in the classroom. She wanted to be cool. 

We did that awkward adolescent thing—going out, but never really going anywhere. We talked on the phone, but honestly, the more we talked, the less I wanted to. It had to have been the same for her. We were doomed to break-up. But we both had an answer to the all-important question. So we went out for most of the year … with a wink to our secret. 

In fifth-grade culture, another threshold of coolness was being free of babysitters. The term itself screams … baby? My sister moved out, I was eleven … and Mom and Dad didn’t give a damn about my coolness. 

Michele was an across the street neighbor. In her senior year, with a college plan, respectful to the parents, Mom and Dad loved her. I was convinced she’d be the end of my reputation! There was this consolation: Michele was hot! Yes, at this point I’d started to notice. Michele had lots to notice. 

One of the nights Michele chaperoned me—sounds better than babysat—I confessed mine and Melissa’s faux-boyfriend/girlfriend ruse, and that I’d never really kissed a girl before. She asked, “Would you like to learn how to kiss a girl?” Hell yes! Michele gave me a very thorough lesson. 

No doubt about it! I like girls! 

Michele went off to college. I went on to Middle School … looking for that first girl to really kiss. 

Climbed on the school bus, heading for the first day of sixth-grade, and there she was—Mary Katherine. Wow! Beautiful in an out-of-my-league way. Once we got to school, it was all the more obvious, I’d never get on her radar, there. She was always surrounded by other kids. Cooler kids. But I noticed something: every Friday afternoon, Mary Katherine got off the school bus a stop early. I learned she went to Annunciation Catholic Church for CCD—whatever that is. 

Home room at the Middle School they sat us alphabetically again—I’m next to Liz Stone. Liz was a no-shit, tell-it-like-it-is pragmatist. I must have confessed my affection for Mary Katherine. Liz’s advice: “You want to impress her? Go to her church.” 

I briefly considered converting to Catholicism. Liz filled me in on all the rules—CCD, confirmation, first communion, serving as an acolyte or altar boy, giving shit up for Lent, not eating meat on Fridays. No thanks!

I don’t remember ever making a choice. Looking back, I see … lessons. Life is more fun with a girl like Katherine. Some girls do have cooties, like Stephanie. Beauty is fleeting, like Susie. Some girls grow up faster than boys, like Ellen. Some girls are better friends than girlfriends, like Melissa. Pretty girls, like Mary Katherine, could lead you astray— 

And kissing girls is important—so do it well. And often. 

Jesus loves me, this I know...

Systematic Theology

More than 35 years of following Jesus, undergraduate and graduate degrees in Bible and Theology, 21 years as a pastor … and the two most important truths I’ve ever learned are (1) Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so (thanks to Brother Book’s All American Christian Day School’s 4-year-old preschool program), and (2) God is bigger than the boogie-man (via VeggieTales). Pretty much everything else takes care of itself when you stand on these two truths.