I was born from original sin
And if I had a dollar bill for everything I've done
There'd be a mountain of money piled up to my chin. Hey!
It is 1982. I am running from the college library, tears scorching my cheeks as I run, racked with blood shame and the burnt edges of unrequited love. My long black hair feels singed as it whips around my red face. It is raining and it is twilight, I remember that. And this man has said something terrible to me. He has said, in essence, No. And possibly, Go away.
I don't quite remember what he said; mercy and recreational drug use have canceled it out. Yet I believe he did it all with one look, one unilateral expression of distaste and rejection and pity.
It is two days before college graduation, and the man I adore has rejected me...in a public library, where I imagine on-campus friends and colleagues can see and gloat and point and laugh with derision and satisfaction: The good-looking people who think they are poets have been taken down once again!
(Perception rules here; it is not real, some of it is falsehood. It was a time of such lovely falsehoods; we were English majors, Tom and I, and everyone else was sensibly getting their MBAs. We believed we were special, more literary and maybe even important voices of our generation. We were just kids. Kids with credit cards and small apartments who listened to the Pretenders and made out over cups of beer from kegs. That is what we were. The fact that we were taught by some of the finest minds and poets -- Gary Snyder, Thom Gunn, and Philip Levine -- only encouraged us, I am afraid. But we knew enough to try, and we knew enough to know we were lucky, and we knew enough to fall in love where love was not indicated, just for the thrill of it. If it sounds like a diet soda pitch, so be it. It was the '80s, Ronald Reagan was president: A lot of trifling occurred while the rich got filthy and tuition to Berkeley doubled and tripled, each semester. Much folly was made over a great deal of nothing.)
I am 22, an amateur poet and a buxom graduating English major at Berkeley, and at this untimely intersection I endure a potent combination of gristly self-pity and windbag notions of high romance.
The man I wrote poetry for over a period of four years (some poems were published in slim, forgettable volumes) has rejected me, and his Real Girlfriend is coming to his graduation. Her name is Leslie. Leslie! The name of both a man and a woman. I feel badly beaten by both sexes. I run on. Leslie. This is the new information, so yes; he must have spoken at Moffat Library. But it was the expression on his face I remember most. Pity: the exact opposite of Passion, its viral antidote. If Passion is a kitchen grease fire, pity is the baking soda you pour onto it. Here I am covered in baking soda and mortification, in 1982. I am thinking I will cease to exist forthwith..
I dash back to my apartment and I decide to skip the graduation ceremony at my college. Because He will be there. I make it all very clean that way, very tragic, and I have the last word into the bargain. At the graduation ceremony, they call my name. He hears it. I am not there.
Score one for the Coward's Way. And fast-forward 24 years.
This man was Tom Cramer. He was always religiously minded, and he went on to become a Presbyterian pastor and have two children and a beautiful wife. Of course he did. This is not the unusual part.
If you'd told me I'd be interviewing Tom Cramer, my super-quasar unconsummated love affair in college, and that the process would be splendid and perfect and life changing, I would say not a chance in Hell.
So naturally it was all arranged.
It was your basic garden-variety miracle. My angle on the story is simple: How Tom Cramer went out into the world to do right, and I went out into the world to do wrong. Our intentions were clear and focused as they can only be at 22. I went on to become a writer, he became a pastor. We both married and bore children. Just as we'd planned. How banal.
"Peculiar travel suggestions," Kurt Vonnegut wrote, "are dancing lessons from God."
My mama taught me good
My mama taught me strong
She said be true to yourself and you can't go wrong
But there's just one thing that you should understand:
You can fool with your brother, but don't mess with the Missionary Man.
I begin the assignment.
I call Tom Cramer's house. I know his wife will answer. She does.
I ask her if I can interview Tom for the Reader. It seems right to be up-front with his wife of 19 years.
It seems wrong to go through the back door and call him at his church, which I have looked up the number for.
I have his secret number; I don't use it. I feel incredibly righteous. So much so, I overplay my hand.
I tell her it was platonic, our whole college relationship. Platonic. She pauses slightly and then says, "Of course. I understand."
"It wasn't platonic!" Tom protests that night on the telephone to his twin brother Ted. They discuss it at length. Ted agrees, it wasn't platonic. True: we didn't Go All The Way (that's what sex was called in the '80s, before it was so tightly associated with death and plague), but surely it was not Platonic.
Ted bridles at the very suggestion, as he himself saw us grappling on the floor of their apartment on Castle Drive to the high-decibel sounds of "The Adulteress'" by Chrissie Hynde. The Cramer twins concede that I have lied to myself, God, and to Tom's wife, Jan.
Tom calls me back and we go over the material.
"I was trying to be discreet," I tell him.
"I thought it best, given your position in the church, to gloss over those tactile parts of our relationship," I tell him.
The missionary man was having none of it.
Tom holds the phone out and tells his wife Jan almost everything and then asks her if she thought I had been in love with him. Out loud. He doesn't seem to remember, or know. Oh, he is nothing if not Out Loud, and also irreverent; a loose cannon. I have badly misjudged Tom, and now I remember: He was always thus. It was I who had shaped him into a pious little stick man over the years, based on my own lack of insight and hard information.
His wife weighs in. "Why wouldn't she be in love with you?"
I get Jan on the phone. I tell Jan I would like to be like her when I grow up. Someday I will have that kind of confidence and peace and nonjealousy and love in a marriage. Someday I will drive backward through Tucson in a Ferrari. Oh, and I'm going to own a HORSE. Maybe several horses. That too.
Jan and I laugh. I love Jan, now. Tom? Not so much. He seems to have a terrible attraction to the truth, something all writers claim to be getting at but secretly abhor, in the same way we consider the writers of nonfiction to be not real writers. Oh we're a motley crew, or at least I am.
Oh, The Missionary Man he's got God on his side
He's got the saints and apostles backing up from behind
Black-eyed looks from those Bible books
He's a man with a mission got a serious smile
Now I am very excited as I begin to finish the draft of this story. I call Tom on his cell phone.
He says he is in the middle of the only spiritual discipline he practices with any success. His voice preempts further discussion. He is golfing. He tells me he has sent me an e-mail earlier this morning, to help out.
"Actually, golf is the only spiritual discipline I practice. Books have been written on the spiritual dimensions of golf," Tom says.
He claims that golf is also aerobic. I tell him any sport that you can smoke cigars and drink while you're doing it is not a sport. I elaborate. I tell him there will be a special circle of Hell for white men who wrote books about golf and that he will be roasting within it if he doesn't look smart. He laughs.
"I have to take my swing," he says as he disconnects his cell phone.
I have to take my swing? This is the man who is to help herald in the new age of Christian enlightenment?
Jesus in a Handcart, as I like to say.
Check your e-mail, he'd said. I check it. I see he has sent me the following:
"Why I Became a Pastor" by Tom Cramer
I grew up in San Diego. I lived for 18 years in the same house in Point Loma until I went off to Berkeley. We lived on a bluff with a 180-degree view of the San Diego bay. It was spectacular, and still is. I graduated from Point Loma High School in June of 1977. My dad and mom, and five of my brothers and sisters, all graduated from Stanford. Needless to say, my twin brother Ted and I were the black sheep of the family.
I grew up with every conceivable blessing, not so much in terms of material or educational provisions, although those existed, but in terms of the amount of love poured out on me from the moment I was conceived. Both my mother and father were told by various physicians that having children would be highly improbable given their respective medical challenges. They ended up bringing eight of us into the world; each of whom they believed was a miracle from God. Move over, baby Jesus.
My parents are hugely nurturing and generous, not only to their own family, but also to the larger community. They were the types who taught reading in the jails, built Salvation Army outposts in the poorest neighborhoods in Tijuana, and sponsored families from Laos. I became a pastor in large part because of the communal soup in which I was baptized. That's hard to argue today because my brothers and sisters have become surgeons, attorneys, commercial real estate brokers, entrepreneurs, and business consultants. And I'm the only one who has become a full-time pastor.
All of us were reared with a laser-clear mission for our lives, that is to be "lovers and givers," as my parents liked to say. If we achieved that, if we knew how to love and be generous, as best as humans are able, then we would be successful in their eyes. Nothing else mattered, at least when it came to the stated destiny for which we were born.
It didn't hurt matters much, in terms of nurturing the soil for Christian faith or producing a pastor as a son, that my parents' commitment to the way of Christ colored everything they did. They were vocal advocates for the civil rights, fair housing, and antiwar movements during the 1960s. My mother taught reading in the jails, and my father was actively engaged in fundraising for agencies and politicians who served the economically poor. Together, they led citywide campaigns to supply food and clothing for the homeless, not only in San Diego, but also in neighboring Tijuana. They were nonstop living examples of Christ's compassion for those who are alienated or disenfranchised.
Living in our house was a lot of fun because it was like living in a recreation/ counseling/community center. When other children ran away from home, or when their parents needed a place to store them, they came to our house. When marriages were cracking, spouses came separately and together to seek comfort and hope. And, although our neighborhood did not have many homeless, my parents would occasionally invite those living on the streets to stay with us for a season. Through it all, we learned an important philosophy for our lives, whether uniquely Christian or not. We discovered that our lives would be best lived for a purpose beyond ourselves.
I want to point out that for over half of my life, I was not a pastor by profession. I was a son, a student, a dreamer, a retail manager, a trade association executive, and in all of those, I believe my call to ministry was similar to what it is now, except that I didn't have the privilege of doing it full-time. I worked my faith out as part of my seven-day week, in moments of silence and reflection, and in moments of utter engagement with the world, whether through my professional involvements or socially. I was, and will always be, a follower of Jesus first, and a pastor second. That is, what I saw in my house growing up rang profoundly true to me as a teenager. As an adolescent finding my way in the world, I placed my faith in the faithfulness of God, as I understood God through the person of Jesus.
An analogy I like very much is the one written by C.S. Lewis in his book Miracles: how God intervenes in nature and human affairs, in his chapter "The Grand Miracle" about the Incarnation. Lewis likens the Incarnation to the noonday sun. He writes, "We believe that the sun is in the sky at midday in summer not because we can clearly see the sun (in fact, we cannot) but because we can see everything else." We can trust the sun is there, in other words, because of the way it illuminates everything else. For me, Jesus did that enough to make me want to trust Him as the integrating leader of my life. Through studying the scriptures, especially the gospels, I came to believe Jesus as the true Lord of love, sent of God's own substance and triune community, to restore, redeem, and recreate a broken humanity, as strange as that must sound to most people.
For several years after leaving Berkeley I fought against the idea of becoming a "professional" pastor and made all sorts of excuses to remain in the marketplace. During a trip to Princeton Theological Seminary to explore the pastorate as a vocation, the chaplain of the school counseled with me on the steps of the cafeteria.
He said, "Tom, I'll tell you what I tell everyone else who is considering a call to ministry. If you can do anything else and be at peace with it, go for it. But if there is nothing else that you can do that will satisfy your sense of call, then I guess you'll just have to be a pastor."
One last thing: I'm as surprised as anybody that I'm a pastor. I don't feel especially holy or different from other people. I drink, probably too much. I struggle with the same challenges of providing for my family and loving my wife. I get angry as hell at pettiness and wealthy Americans who somehow believe they deserve their riches, as if they built all the roads and communication systems that have contributed to their vast wealth. (Although "some of my best friends are Republicans.") I love to party and play sports. It's just that I've always had a sense that maybe there's a better way to be human -- and that way has been uniquely revealed in the person of Jesus Christ. He's a God of wonder and grace and, ultimately, the God of perfect love. He's a God worthy of my best. It's my greatest honor to be a pastor for Him.
They rushed down the street together, digging everything in the early way they had, which later became so much sadder and perceptive and blank. But then they danced down the streets like dingledodies, and I shambled after as I've been doing all my life after people who interest me, because the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes "Awww!"
by Jack Kerouac
We wanted poetry then the way people want God, now. And maybe poetry is simply trying to get God on the telephone.
My two recent days with Tom Cramer were nothing less than extraordinary. We spent lots of time together at his church and around town; it all worked out in a magical way. He loosened up beautifully after one Lemon Drop straight up and took me to dinner and lunch the next day and to the airport and back. When he picked me up at the airport, Tom Cramer opened a car door for me, on the passenger's side. I couldn't remember the last time a man had done that. (A man that wasn't a valet, or a man I must tip.) It felt holy.
We laughed a lot. I cried like a baby at his church. If anyone starts saying the Lord's Prayer, I immediately come unglued, because (in what I see now as a stroke of celestial irony) my own father was a preacher before he left home and became a professional alcoholic and died in 1979. In 1960, it was my father who baptized me -- and so I have never felt that my Baptism stuck. I explain this to Tom.
"Your father didn't baptize you," Tom replied that April Sunday, as he hurried to his next seminar at the church, "Jesus did."
"Oh." I wanted to clutch at his robes and weep like a little girl, for about an hour. But instead I followed him to the next Bible study class, almost running to keep up with him. The class was wonderful; there were cookies. Also they passed out Xeroxed sheets that explained the organization and elements of the entire Bible. These were things I thought truly religious people were supposed to just know. I feel relieved and grateful; now I have a rudimentary handle on the Bible. Fantastic.
The way Tom Cramer dishes out Jesus, I can almost wholly believe in Him. Like a dish of cream to a stray cat. Like a favorite brand of synthetic motor oil. He makes Jesus sound possible and even right; he convinces me to continue to believe in something like a God. Unlike my father, who used to say, "There's nobody up there." My father, who was a Baptist minister before he left the church in 1969 for philandering boozy peace marches and higher ground. (Now there was a Christ-killer if I ever saw one: my father. First he dedicated himself to spreading the word of Jesus, and then he took to bartending and spent the remainder of this life relentlessly running Jesus down and bitterly denigrating anything having to do with even the mildest religion. Goodness knows, it is so textbook alcoholic. What a dreadful disease it is. If you ask me, God never should have even invented alcohol, it's just too tempting and delicious.)
When I left Tom at the airport I said, "I love you," and he said, "I love you too." I didn't mean to say it; it slid in during the moment. Some weird light shone around him, it seemed, as he stepped into his immaculate Honda Accord. I swear, it did. He still moves me deeply. And it is not to be. And that's right. We call it Love, now. We don't even smirk or feel ashamed. It really is platonic, the highest ideal, and especially in a world where television reality shows hype the exchange of bodily fluids and the highest point of betrayal is (falsely) achieved to win a grand prize of cash. What I object to in shows like this isn't the morality issue; it's the abject glee at seeing other contestants fail at betrayal. I would like to see a true representation of betrayal or none at all: Betrayal is huge, it ended my marriage, and it cut a fire path through my son's life. It almost cost me my very bricks and home hearth.
Betrayal was the whole plot point of Christianity, for God's sake. You take out Judas and the Crucifixion and the whole thing goes flat.
(It occurs to me just now that writing is like climbing on a surfboard and knowing I can't really surf, but I can try. And perhaps this will amuse others. The most striking facet of being a writer is not its sporadic poverty, but rather that we are often paid money to make up stories and slander/idealize our friends, relatives, and enemies.) But I digress. Let me get back to God.
How the power of being in church can melt down your veneer in about four minutes.
How most people don't just stay the same but intensify, over years of trials and kudos and tribulations. For example: Tom and me. We're just older, heightened versions of our younger, smoother selves. Also? Think of how much more Ronald Reagan would be if he were still alive and well. He'd be Super Reagan.
How everything comes out round if you wait long enough. You will get over love, you will save the family and peace will grow. You will eventually stop hating your ex-husband, you will laugh together again and talk about weather and what size shoes your son wears.
How grace is a banquet if we will but sit down to eat. Just eat the damn sermon.
There was a woman in a jungle and a monkey on a tree
The Missionary Man he was following me
He said stop what you're doing get down upon your knees
There's a message for you that you better believe, believe, believe
"What is the most important thing in your life, right now?"
He was in the middle of watching SportsCenter and wouldn't be moved.
Will you e-mail me? I ask humbly. I mean, this man has probably had enough of this whole project and me. This man is busy doing good works. I tell him I will plug his church's good works. And maybe people will send money to his church so they can build more wells and all that rather essential stuff that he does while I am at the advertising agency writing ad copy for a major national brand of peanut butter.
So. He of course says he would do it no matter what. Okay, so he's a saint? Jesus.
He e-mailed me this morning. He is a true professional. Of the two of us, that makes one.
One defining characteristic of my spiritual tradition is the sovereignty of God. That means that God is at work at all times, that He never slumbers or sleeps, and that there is no area of life over which we have more authority than He does. We also believe that God works in the world both with our cooperation and without it, and all too often, in spite of it. We muck things up. We believe we have all the answers when in reality we find ourselves asking the wrong questions. What keeps us honest is rubbing shoulders with others both near and far, in our tradition and outside of it. We're not a big "us versus them, Christianity versus the world" sort of people. Humanity is just "us."
What some Christians call the "secular world," therefore, is yet another place where we might find Christ speaking to us -- through literature, through the arts, through prophets that God raises up. Think of what Bono from U2 has done. In other words, we don't draw a wide line between the secular and sacred, or Presbyterians and other Christian traditions. As one wise man put it, "We're all just beggars in search of bread." Folks from my tradition firmly believe that only Christ Himself is "the bread of life."
So we find God in odd places and places you might expect. I find it important to continually seek out those places and listen to what God is saying, and then join Him in the work He is doing. This is different from making your plans for your life and then using the name of God to justify your actions.
To this end, it helps to be in ongoing partnerships with churches in Latin America, Africa, and throughout the developing world. They have insights into the reality of God that we don't have here; they trust in Him and in each other at a completely different level than most people of affluence. We get stressed about what movie we'll go to on Friday night; they get stressed about which child in the village they can send to college. Theirs is often a completely different level of economic decision-making than we face on a daily basis. By entering into their plight, it challenges me to see God and His concerns for justice and poverty through their eyes.
Being in partnership has also demonstrated a most practical side of faith. If you walk into any of the worship services of the Presbyterian Church of East Africa, you'll see a time set aside for prevention and treatment of HIV/AIDS and other deadly diseases. The PCEA was also a leader in eradicating female genital mutilation 75 years ago when it cost some of the leaders their lives. Everywhere you drive throughout Kenya you'll see orphanages, medical clinics, hospitals, and schools, funded and staffed by these Presbyterian Christians. It's no mystery why their membership has grown from 3 million to 4.2 million in just the 6 years I've been involved. The Christ they worship in their buildings they follow out onto the streets. We have much to learn from them about the nature of Christ's love, and I am personally challenged to go and do likewise.
Another benefit of being in partnership with the church in Africa is that we have been able to walk alongside them to do some pretty significant stuff. We've worked together to fund and drill four freshwater wells that now serve 250,000 people. We've also established a significant educational scholarship fund to ensure that at least the hardest-working kids in the region of Limuru (north of Nairobi) can afford to go to trade school or university. And lastly, our partnership has provided housing for hundreds of homeless women and children. It's amazing to see how much we've done in such a short period together. But that's what happens when people are united in a common cause and submit themselves to each other with grace and humility.
Should anyone wish to support these causes, they can make checks payable to the "Los Ranchos Presbytery" and write "East Africa Partnership" on the notation line. The address is Presbytery of Los Ranchos, P.O. Box 910, Anaheim CA 92815-0910.
So, my friend, that's what I got so far. I know you didn't ask for it, but because of your love for me, I thought you might want to see it.
I see it. Now others can see it. This is communion.
The Year of Our Lord 2006
World Without End