I grew up going to church with my family every Sunday morning and Wednesday night in rural Southwest Virginia. My older brother and I would put on our church clothes and line up at the door like little toy soldiers, and I loved every minute of it. The sad part is I loved the wrong part. I loved the meticulously ordered routine that my family managed to maintain to the wonder of all the other families. I can remember hearing the older members of the church saying,
“Those boys are so well behaved.”
I didn’t even understand what the last one meant, but what I heard was that I was better than the other children and it had everything to do with what I did rather than who I was. That may not have been what they meant but it’s what I heard. If I controlled myself well enough, then I was godly. So I dressed up, I crossed my t’s and dotted my I’s, and I made sure everyone knew it. Everyone loved it, except my peers that is.
I took pride in the routine and control, because I believed that if I somehow lived a good enough life, then I just might make it to Heaven; and I might finally be that godly young man people thought I was. I learned how to play instruments, I learned to sing, I even learned how to study the Bible, but it was never about knowing God, it was simply about knowing that I was better. Better than my peers, better than my siblings, and better than I used to be. The irony is that all I achieved down that road was pain and scars that left me much worse off than I was before.
I took my meticulous control so far into our lives that there were even Christmas decorations that only I could arrange. We had a set of 12 toy soldiers, each one unique but sharing similarities with its brothers that I always tried to organize in increasingly complex sequences every year. Never in my darkest nightmares could I fathom my chaotic little brother arranging them, for he seemed to enjoy only the random and unpredictable. I couldn’t imagine anyone doing a better job than myself.
I continued this way for years, until 2017 when I had only begun to grasp what having a relationship with God was like. God taught me a lot that year, and He began showing me that maybe it was okay to not be in control, maybe the wild beauty of nature was beautiful because it was wild. I had to quickly put that belief into practice when my dad took a promotion halfway across the country, and my family left me to finish the last 3 years of my degree in Virginia. That wasn’t in my plan at all, but it was clearly in His.
That fall I went to a Chi Alpha service at Radford University, even though I attended the community college 10 minutes away. There I was greeted with such open arms that I not only felt as though I belonged, but I no longer understood how I could belong anywhere else. I saw heaven in their eyes that night. I met such drastically different people dedicated to the same cause, that I was skeptical it even be true. But the more I saw, the more I found that they were indeed real. I finally understood the point of the Body of Christ and that we all have a part to play, because no matter how hard the brain tells the feet to move, if there are no feet then nothing will be achieved. God opened my heart to His glorious creation that year.
For Christmas I drove 22 hours to Minnesota to see my parents and my little brother for the first time since they had moved. It was a new house and the decorations were different and it was way too cold, but it was home. My little brother even pulled me over to see his array of nutcrackers scattered across the shelves. They all stood proudly displaying their differences to the world. Those 12 little toy soldiers, whose order I had once held so dear, were finally fulfilling their true purpose.
I wouldn’t have it any other way.