I’m on a bit of an odyssey for two weeks. One back in time.
One of the benefits of working at Focus on the Family is that a number of years ago, Dr. Dobson wanted to make sure employees were well compensated for their work, and budget didn’t allow for bonuses, so he instituted a generous vacation time-earning system for long-time employees. As such, I have vacation time I need to start using. So my wife, Jackie, said, “Why don’t you go see Nels in Jacksonville for two weeks and get some fishing done.”
I do what my wife says.
You see, Nels is my longest and earliest buddy. We met when I had just newly moved to Jacksonville from Maryland, and we were both in Mrs. Griffith’s second grade class at Venetia Elementary School, P.S. 68. That was August 1970.
Nels and I hit it off immediately, as different kinds of misfits. He was the youngest child of a successful pediatrician and his beautifully petite but fiery wife. They had like five or six other children, all much older quasi-hippie types who were both fascinating and a bit scary to me.
I lived in more of the working-class part of our neighborhood by the train tracks and freeway, while Nels was closer to the Timuquana Country Club on the majestic St. Johns River. I was the oldest of three boys, alienated by my older sister. I was scared to death to be at this new school in this new town in a new part of the country. Nels was a like a haven of safety for me for some reason. He dressed cool, and he liked Hot Wheels cars just like me. And as long as I had at least one friend, maybe I wouldn’t be such a target of ridicule as an outsider.
We went back to that old neighborhood yesterday to look around. Was it as rough then as it looked now? We spotted a girl on the corner of the main intersection where the drug store used to stand and where we made sure kids got safely across the four lanes of Roosevelt Boulevard as part of our patrol boy duty. We wondered if she was just a girl standing on the corner or a girl working the corner. It was hard to tell. Had times really changed or had we?
Nels and I grew up fishing nearly every day along the banks of the St. John’s River in his little dingy, seeking anything we could pull out of the water. Last night we were out at 2 a.m. in his much bigger, faster boat on the northern part of that river with Nels’ 19-year-old son, Christian, and their pastor, Tom. We were pulling brown trout out of the water hand over fist at the municipal docks where the freighters from China are unloaded. The dock yard was lit up like daytime, and the bright lights draw the fish’s meal to the surface and thus the fish. We had great fun in the cool of the night.
As I tried to free the hook from one of my catches, a crafty and spiteful Mr. Trout drove the very hook that got him deep into the meat of my thumb at the side of the nail. Waaay deep, past the barb! No other way to extract it than to jerk it loose like a wiggly tooth with a perfect balance of necessary force and gentleness. Nels did it with a pair of forceps like a pro, and I’m hoping my immune system is strong enough to kill off the various new micro-inhabitants the hook introduced into my body.
I was a good Catholic boy growing up. Our family faith was pretty dry and predictable. Nels, when we met, had parents who had gotten pretty radically saved out of good ol’ American self-sufficiency, materialism and regular bouts of cocktail inebriation. It would not be an overstatement to say they were so on-fire for God that even God might have advised them to bring it down a few notches. Yes, they would even witness to people who phoned their house, often not even bothering to say hello first. They would just pick up the ringing phone and start telling the person on the other end about the glories of knowing Jesus. No need to find out who it was first or enter into pre-evangelistic small-talk. They didn’t believe that “today was the appointed day of salvation.” It was more like “Right now, this moment!” They gave Jesus everything they had and still do to this day, for he who is forgiven much is thankful for much.
Watching this day after day was an inspiration and a marvel to me. At least I saw very different ways of following Jesus. And my buddy is an amazing son to his aging, but still very active parents. That we would be serving and loving Jesus with such zeal when we approach 90! Peter had that kind of zeal, and his bold confession was the rock upon which Christ built His church (Matthew 16:17-18).
Nels and I grew up getting in our share of trouble, skateboarding and surfing far too many times in restricted areas — and thus having regular run-ins with the law — playing pranks on citizens of our neighborhood that might or might not have destroyed valuable property of said citizens. But God had His sights on those two mischievous boys and kept us from a great deal of harm. Both of us are serving God full time in our professional lives now, Nels as the business manager at his church and I as a researcher at Focus on the Family. We now have lives geographically far apart, but experientially very similar.
I am humbled beyond words to see what God has done with the two of us. We were talking today about how what God has done in our lives didn’t come out of any talents or skills we had, as if God needed us on His team. We know that better than any. If we are anything today, as moderately successful but deeply blessed husbands, fathers (of eight amazing kids between us) and Christian men, it is because of God’s gracious leading and keeping hand. We also know this better than any. And my advice to young adults today would be to lean hard into and upon our God and follow where He leads. He is a good, loving Father who has good things for you. If our own earthly parents want a good life for us, how much more our heavenly Father! It has not all been a cake walk, but looking back on our formative years helps both of us see what adventures God was lovingly leading us toward in our wives, our children and our work.
We are both amazed to see how God has led us from that first day of meeting in Mrs. Griffin’s second grade class so long ago as two witless kids to today as two men of a certain age being given privilege and responsibility we never would have imagined in our wildest dreams. It’s 2011, and we only feel jipped that we never got those jet-packs we were told the future would provide.
I still have a great deal of fishing and sailing to do with Nels as I near the end of our first week together, but it has already been tremendously rich, and I anticipate the balance of my days here.
(If you live in the Jacksonville area, I will be preaching this Sunday morning (July 10, 2011) at Neptune Baptist Church and teaching a fun and informative parenting seminar on my new book Secure Daughters, Confident Sons that afternoon at 5 p.m. Come join us!)