Surprised by Joy
One of the many advantages of being a professor is that you get to spend your life with people whose age never changes—they are always eighteen through twenty-two. What that means is that you tend to forget that although they are not getting older, you are. However, it so happens that three children call me Grandpa, so I guess that means that more years have gone by than I like to think. In fact, as I write this, I’m sitting near a mirror, and if there was ever any doubt about how many years have come and gone, all I have to do is to take a little glance at the sagging skin and graying hair that characterize the person looking back at me. Time has been moving on, and it has taken me with it.
Last Sunday morning, my wife Joyce and I watched all three of our grandchildren perform on stage in the annual Christmas musical production at their church. It happens that this was one of the most fulfilling experiences of my life; tears flowed freely down my cheeks as I watched. I need to explain why. It was not because they were the stars of the program. They weren’t. None of them sang a solo or even had any lines in the script. What I found fulfilling, what I really loved, was the smile on Caleb’s face as he sang the songs and swayed with the music. Noah, our eight-year-old, was wearing a lamb outfit that kept falling over his face. I liked how he tried to remain so cool and composed under less-than-ideal circumstances. And I was amused at seeing Sara shyly lift her hand ever so slightly in acknowledging the attention-getting waves of two older people in the second row—her grandmother and me. My grandchildren are growing up in a Christian community and they are coming to experience the love of God firsthand through their many Christian friends and through their church. Still, why did such an everyday experience move me so deeply?
Forty years ago I began my career as a biologist. During my studies it had become very clear that my professors were right—evolution and natural selection were the correct mechanism by which the diverse animal and plant forms had arisen. Partly because of that, I wandered away from the faith of my youth for awhile and never expected I would return. In a recent video interview just posted on The Faraday Institute web site, I describe my return. I came back to faith thoroughly convinced of the reality of evolution, but determined to enter into a personal relationship with God of the sort that had so richly characterized my life as I was growing up. So I got back on the road which leads to God—I began once more the life of faith. I never expected though that I could be a part of an evangelical community again; the differences between the facts of biology and the views of evangelical Christians seemed too great. So I did my best to live the life of an evangelical Christian without being in an evangelical fellowship. I had a deep and meaningful personal relationship with God, but corporate evangelicalism, I was certain, would have to be a thing of the past. During this time, Joyce and I were watching our toddlers grow into little girls. I knew that it might be possible for me to retain the evangelical views of my youth in the absence of a rich church life, but I was not at all convinced that our daughters would—not at least, unless we joined an evangelical church community. I could see no way that that would happen.
There is no memory that epitomizes my emotions regarding all of this more succinctly than that of a Sunday afternoon at our favorite beach in San Clemente, California. Shelley and Cheryl were two and four at the time. As we drove into the parking lot, we saw an orange Sunday School bus. The black lettering on the side indicated it had brought a load of children from a church of the same denomination in which Joyce and I had grown up. Seeing that bus and knowing that there was a church picnic going on brought back all the memories of the outings and fellowships that I had so dearly loved. With those memories of my childhood running through my mind, there, on the beach in front of me, were my own children playing in the sand. I looked at them and thought to myself, “How sad. You are never going to experience any of this. Your father knows that evolution is true and there is no room for someone like him in evangelicalism. I can’t take you to a church like that.” My heart ached. I wished for them what I had known.
Soon after that, we moved to Syracuse, New York, where I began my life as a university professor. We were deeply concerned that our girls were not growing up in a church, but the dilemma was still there: science and the world of academics didn’t seem to have a place in evangelicalism. After we had been in Syracuse for about 8 months, one Sunday morning we packed up our girls in our Pinto station wagon and traveled across town to an evangelical church that we hoped might work for us. We parked our car on a hillside until the service ended and watched people leaving the church so that we could get a feeling for whether we might possibly fit into this community. As I reflect back on this now, I can still hear our two little girls playing in the back of the station wagon as Joyce and I sat and watched from a distance as the congregation was dismissed. “Were these the kind of evangelicals with whom we might fit in?” we asked. “Could we bring up our girls in this church?” It seemed to take the people forever to leave the church that April Sunday morning, and we knew that if ever we felt we could go back, this would be a friendly church. We longed to go back. We longed for our girls to grow up in the environment we had known. As the week progressed, though, we decided we couldn’t go back. Evangelicalism was in our past. There was no room for us in evangelicalism. Our girls would have to make do in life. We could not cross the bridge from the world of academics back into the world of evangelical Christianity.
Six months later, we became very concerned again. The girls were six and four now. We were three thousand miles from our homes in western Canada, we missed our families, we missed our church families and we examined the question one more time. We were both pretty sure it would be the last time. If this didn’t work, church was out of our lives for good. So I got into my forest green Pinto station wagon again and visited that same church we had almost attended six months earlier. That trip, taken on that October Sunday morning so long ago, was the single most defining moment of our lives. We had found a home. Our two little girls became fully engaged in all the activities that so typify evangelical churches. All the things I wished for them on the San Clemente beach, and all that I had hoped for on that hillside in an old station wagon came true after all. Truly, we as a family were surprised by joy. Evolution aside, we had found a home in evangelical Christianity.
So here we are 32 years later, and I’m sitting in a Christmas program watching Caleb, Noah, and Sara sing about Jesus with joy in their faces and peace in their hearts. They are experiencing the fullness of what it means to live life in a Christian community which emphasizes salvation through Christ and entering a lifelong personal relationship with God. It almost didn’t happen. If it hadn’t been for the fact that 32 years ago, I found an evangelical church where views about the facts of biology would not be scoffed at, our lives would have turned out so differently. I would not have spent the last 26 years as a professor at two Christian universities, and Joyce would not have spent those same years as an administrator in the same universities. Cheryl and Shelley would not be the marvelous deeply committed Christian first grade teachers they have turned out to be and I am so pleased that both are married to wonderfully supportive Christian husbands. Finally, I think about Caleb with that big smile, Noah, so coolly maintaining his composure in the face of adversity, and Sara lifting her hand ever so slightly to acknowledge her proud grandparents. It is Christmas, a time for giving gifts. I received mine last Sunday morning; I need nothing more.