One month ago, Easter descended on our community with the fervor of a child seeking chocolate eggs at the crack of dawn, basket in hand. The sugar rush lasts throughout the morning but wanes sometime around noon, as too the Pastor’s ability to focus on any particular voice after a long day of preaching, meetings, counseling and the like. This happened to me a few days ago. Coming home from a long day at the office, I found myself exhausted, and, as Melisa related something of her day to me, I could not for the life of me, in that moment, concentrate on the sequence of sentences that spilled from her lips. I nodded in approval of what was said, but it didn’t make any sense. She noticed by the look on my face that I’d somehow misinterpreted her, so she reiterated. I agreed, again, but this time changed my tone and so was able to navigate the fog.
But where’d the fog come from, and why was I wandering around in it?
A lot happens in The Valley. There are events for everything, and this is something that I’m curiously growing accustomed to. On one hand, I like the pace and productivity. Tulare county is known for its high production of dairy and grows nearly anything under the sun. There is an old fashioned work ethic that's somehow survived post-modernity and reminds me of hauling barrel sized stumps and logs out of the bush. My father, brother and I would cut up wet poplar, spruce and pine and drag them to the truck, loading the box to the max for a slow ride home. The wood would sit for a year beside the garage and then we'd split the stuff into fours when it was properly dried. The logs would pop and crack under the slow, merciless hydraulics of the wood splitter.
On the other hand the sheer pace of running from one event to the next is a little maddening. There’s nothing hard about going to events and shaking hands and passing out contact info and drinking coffee and chatting about the differences between Canada and California (most notably the weather) and sitting through the National Day of Prayer after a hearty breakfast. I don’t feel worn because of that. But I do feel hollow when I haven’t had much time to pray and think. Being a busybody is precisely that - the soul passively moves from one place to the next, one interaction to another, and is deprived of nourishment. The soul is slow. It, I mean me and probably you too, need a human pace that’s divinely orchestrated rather than mechanically synchronized for surface level encounters. Less is more, as they say, and, they’re right in the way 1 John 2:17 is right: “And this world is fading away, along with everything that people crave. But anyone who does what pleases God will live forever.” Simplicity in this age of hyped-spectacle glut is golden because it reminds us of our mortal natures. Thank the Lord we have the freedom in Christ to turn off our devices, say no to a few things and walk in His creation as we first did.
The mountains out here are never far away, nor the ocean for that matter. I’m told that many in The Valley get away from it all with quick trips to either location, but not always. About a week and a half after Easter Sunday, a friend invited me to the Sequoia Cycling Classic, a day long hodgepodge of bike races in downtown Visalia. We watched a couple hours of racing and even walked the track to get a better sense of the corners. There were a few announcers who kept the crowd into it and a beer garden about half full, with the rest of the spectators milling either around the finish line or by some of the booths selling tacos and bike gear. You watched because you either were into cycling and racing or knew a competitor. Or because you were just passing through . . . which got me thinking about how hard it was to train for anything, let alone 30 to 75 minute high speed races of constant pedaling and maneuvering. Looking from the sidelines, I could relate with the discipline needed to just make the event and was struck with an odd sensation that had somehow been hidden among the fog: gratitude.
* * *
The trek to Phoenix, Arizona for the Church of God Regional Convention pushed us along nine hours of freeways and semi-trailers. There isn’t much for the mind to think about after the first few hours, but Ben Hayes (Youth Pastor outta Exeter, Church of God) and I knew the drill. We’re both from Western Canada and have driven through its vast tracts of prairie, Rockies and snow drift nights to know that good conversation can get you six, maybe seven-hundred miles. After that, sections of the brain start to shut down, leaving only the lights on in the primordial areas. Once arriving, it gives you that oh-we’re-here-already effect; the numb feeling of fatigue where the last hundred miles are somehow obliterated from memory.
Pulling into Maricopa, I asked Ben about our host.
" I don’t know him.”
“You don’t know him”, I replied, suddenly feeling alert.
“Yeah, I talked to him over the phone once for about forty-five minutes, but I’ve never met the guy.”
This is how Youth Pastors role. They’re betwixt weird worlds of teenagers and adults and have to pull off late nights and early mornings with relational zeal hovering somewhere around professionalism, but not too much, lest they be considered an Associate. Spontaneity is key in order to be with the kids and keep up with their schedules.
Our host, Pastor Chris Leon, grew up in the Central Valley but is now ministering with his wife, Katie, and three children at Community of Hope Church. We talked for hours in their spacious kitchen as tri-tip and ribs smoked in the backyard. Chris and his wife weekly host kids from in and outside the church. They are a family on mission and take the Gospel wherever they go. And sometimes, it need only go as far as their living room.
After the meal, Ben, Chris and I decided to venture out for ice cream. We drove through the sleepy town of Maricopa and discussed the difficulties of playing the town’s disc golf course, which runs parallel to the road and rows of houses, giving any noob limited room for error and plenty of chances to be out-of-bounds over a fence or on the asphalt and under the moving tires of a SUV full of kids meandering slowly to the next soccer game.
We pulled up to a Sonic Drive-In and proceeded to the drive thru. Looking through the long menu of ice cream, floats, shakes, and everything else, we finally settled on what we were to order. We also noticed that shakes were cheaper past eight p.m. . . . and lo and behold we were well past the hour.
“Hi, welcome to Sonic. How may I help you?”
Chris: “Yeah, are your floats also half off?”
Nothing. Did she hear us? O, wa-
Chris: “I said, are your floats half off too? It says that your shakes are but I was wondering if your floats were too?”
Nothing, again. Is there some sorta delay between us and the teenage girl at the window? Are they transmitting the message to Sonic’s headquarters in Oklahoma City before relaying it to-
“Did you want friiiiies?”
At first, I started chuckling. How’d she get fries out of that? Looking over, I noticed Chris was laughing as well and had his head slightly bent down as if not to laugh right into the microphone. That’s when Ben decided to do what was only reasonable, and answer for Chris.
Ben: “Yes. Fries.”
My chuckle began turning into a laugh. Not a full blown laugh, but a quiet, maintained laugh. Chris was laughing too and unable to cut Ben off.
This was getting to be too much. How was our communication breaking down so badly? Amidst the laughter, Chris reiterated his question and it was met with more silence, and then this:
“DId you want to order fries, half off?”
I began laughing heartily.
Ben: “Yes. Are your fries half off?” He said it composed, as if he were the one really trying to order, not Chris.
That was it. I lost it. Tears of laughter trickled from the corners of my eyes as I laughed, crouched up into my knees in the passenger seat, thinking that this was never going to end and that somehow we’d be stuck with a few bags of lousy fries. The miscommunication kept going on, back and forth, till it was finally made clear that no one really wanted fries and Chris wanted floats half off (which they were). Driving back to Chris’s house, I was grateful to be with two spontaneous and godly men, full of ice cream and jovial banter.
* * *
Six a.m. came quick with the annoying buzzing of the alarm, and some thirty minutes later I was driving up Mooney towards the National Day of Prayer in a button up and tie. I typically don’t dress up in Tulare since California casual pervades, but decided to this time around. The Rotary Club was hosting the event, and that, at least to my assuming, groggy mind, meant a level of formality. I was right as most had dressed just formal enough to make you think twice about sneakers.
After the hearty breakfast, we listened to a local quartet sing a few songs that sounded familiar. I hadn’t heard the songs before, but I knew the sound. There was hope in their voices as they sang in harmony. Faith permeated the words and I couldn’t help but be reminded of God’s unconditional love for every soul in and outside the room. And again, like the bike rally and drive thru, a bright light of gratitude filled me and cut through the fog. As James 1:17 states, “Whatever is good and perfect is a gift coming down to us from God our Father, who created all the lights in the heavens.” Some inner beacon of gratitude within me kept turning on as I stumbled in the fog, and it kept pointing me to Christ. I’m here because of Him and grateful that He steers me right, out of harm's way and further into His good way.