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Table of Contents
|Where Do You Go When the Water Rises?||p. 1|
|Sing It Like You Mean It||p. 23|
|An Open Window||p. 43|
|The Start of Something||p. 57|
|Guiding Light||p. 75|
|Up and Running||p. 89|
|The End of Something||p. 107|
|Returning to Speed||p. 119|
|Dark Nights of the Soul||p. 161|
|Turning the Tables||p. 179|
|Grace and Truth and Fast Food||p. 187|
|Points of Connection||p. 201|
|A Closing Thought||p. 217|
|Table of Contents provided by Ingram. All Rights Reserved.|
Where Do You Go
When the Water Rises?
THERE COMES A TIME IN EVERYONE’S LIFE WHEN THINGS get a little tough, and how we respond to these moments of crisis says a whole lot about our character and our worldview. It says a lot about our faith, too. Personally, I can’t imagine facing the storms and dust-ups of this world without a strong sense of a supreme being that takes care of us, watches over us, and creates endless opportunities for us to be the best we can be, even in the face of turmoil and uncertainty. I can’t imagine looking ahead at what’s to come without the firm foundation of knowing what’s come before—and what’s awaiting us on the other side.
Now, I’m not suggesting that someone can’t make sense of this type of thing without a strong and abiding faith, because a great many people do just that. They look at a mountain or a sunset, and they’re transported. They draw comfort in the warm embrace of family or tradition. I can understand that. They find meaning and resonance in the majesty and splendor of the world, and they’re uplifted by it. That’s great—really!—and yet, for me, the strength to withstand whatever comes my way flows through a sustaining relationship with God and a lifelong, headlong exploration of the Bible. The two go hand in hand, and together they take me where I’m going.
Where do you go when the water rises?
It’s a central question, don’t you think? How we answer it says a great deal about our faith in ourselves. In one another. In God. And where we look for that answer says a lot, too. I’ve been thinking about this kind of stuff for many, many years. I think about it, and I talk it through. In fact, some of the people around me recognize that my faith and my search for meaning are such huge aspects of my life that they’ve been on me to write about them. At first, I stiff-armed the idea. It struck me as preposterous. And presumptuous. I thought, Who am I to write a book about God and religion? Me, a guy who’d rather head out to the golf course on Sunday mornings than go to church? Me, a mailman’s son from McKees Rocks, Pennsylvania? Oh, I’d written a couple of books, and I enjoyed sharing my thoughts in this way, but a study on faith and the meaning of life seemed a little beyond my pay grade. I didn’t think I had it in me to take on such a daunting assignment. Plus, I’m a pretty private guy, and this is intimate, personal territory—and I was never the sort to advertise my faith. True, I’d shared some of my values and beliefs in my previous books, but I’d always stopped short of reflecting on my personal relationship with God—because, after all, it’s personal. Nevertheless, a few of my friends kept bringing it up, including some people in publishing who ought to know a thing or two. They kept telling me there was a hunger out there for a kind of ground-level take on spirituality and that I was just the person to give it voice. I didn’t know about that, but it was nice to hear.
My friends have an awful lot of confidence in me. That’s how it goes with good friends. They push you to believe in yourself, and they fill your head with the idea that anything is possible, and that’s what happened here. Slowly at first, but then the idea began to pick up a little steam. Of course, it wasn’t just my take my friends were after. They knew I’d belonged to a pretty serious Bible study group for the past twenty or so years, made up of some of my oldest and closest friends. They knew we’d been meeting over lunch every other week to discuss issues such as greed and lust and envy and where we go when the water rises, and they thought there might be something in our coming together and our back-and-forth that folks across the country might respond to in a positive way.
At the time, I had no plans to return to public life. I’d logged my time in the State Senate and in Congress, and I was thoroughly enjoying my work in the private sector. I looked ahead to the balance of my “career” and imagined I’d continue working in the media, on the lecture circuit, and in business, and a book such as this seemed to fit right in. Here was a chance to shine light on one value in particular—faith—so I gave the idea some real thought, at around the same time as I started thinking about a return to public life. Suddenly, the idea of a book on faith and a shared search for meaning was appealing to me for the very reasons I’d resisted it at first, because if I went about it the right way, I could take on these big, grand, imposing topics such as God and the scriptures and make them a little more accessible, a little more real. I talked it through with the guys in my study group, and I began to see that I was uniquely positioned to address some of these themes. Check that. We were uniquely positioned, because I’d be giving voice to our shared experience.
Look, we’re all unique, right? We’ve all got our own points of view, but in my case, the view came on a bit of a platform, so I was able to put the word out in a way that might be heard. I’d been elected to public office and served the people of Ohio for nine terms as a United States congressman. I’d tried to run for president. I’d hosted a talk show on Fox News and traveled the country giving speeches about what’s ailing corporate America and heartland America and how we might set things right. And I’d written those books I just mentioned, which sold enough copies to get me invited back to my desk to write another.
So, as I said, I was intrigued, even as I started to feel the tug and pull of politics yet again. It had been the furthest thing from my mind, until it was front and center all over again. I had been a public servant, after all, and here I was being drawn to a new role on a new stage, where I thought I could do some good.
So there was that, too.
At some point, I decided to take a crack at the book you now hold in your hands, believing that in the small-strokes story of my involvement with these guys in the study there was a much larger story itching to be told—namely, the story of contemporary American men, reaching for real meaning in their lives and in their relationships through discussion and consideration of the Old and New Testaments. Sound a little too high and mighty for you? Well, let me dial it down a notch; let’s just call it the story of this one group of American men, me and my Bible guys, looking to make sense of it all in our own way. Like my friends in publishing, the guys in our study push me to reach for more than I might have thought I could handle at first. We push one another. At bottom, we struggle, as I think most men do, to find a place for faith and religion in our lives—only with us, it’s not such a struggle, because we go at it together.
There’s strength in our numbers. Resonance. Relevance. Resilience. The older we get, the more we’ve come to understand that the keys to happiness can’t be found in praise or money or plaques or whatever it is we seek to accumulate in our workaday lives. Those things are nice, but they’re a little beside the point, don’t you think? Anyway, that’s the mood of the room, among our group. Together, we’ve helped one another realize that you need to go deeper than trappings or accolades if you seek true happiness and fulfillment and meaning. You need to work at it if you mean to make yourself a better person, or make a difference, or count for something at the end of your days.
Trophies don’t make character. Year-end bonuses don’t make character. They don’t define us. Ultimately, what gives us shape and purpose is the effort we make to live meaningfully and to understand how our time on this earth fits alongside whatever comes next.
Faith, that’s what it comes down to. The lessons of the Bible. The insights we draw from one another. In our group, we look to the stories of the Bible as a kind of road map for how to live, how to improve ourselves. It’s all right there—the human condition, with all its flaws and in all its glory. But it’s not all there in a neat package. No, that would be too easy. You need to peel away all the different layers of implication and context to figure out how to apply those lessons to your own circumstance. As my friend the Rev. Dr. Kevin Maney reminds me, it is impossible to plumb the depths of God. But that doesn’t mean you don’t try. You need to get at the essence and the meaning, sometimes in a sidelong way. You need to bounce some ideas and interpretations off your friends and see how they look from some other angle. That’s what we do in our study.
We’re not like any other group I’ve ever encountered. We’re not even like any other group of guys who get together on a regular basis for any reason at all, whether it’s to play cards or basketball or to discuss books or business. What we are, really, is a beacon. And a constant. We’ve been there for one another, in one form or another, for more than twenty years, and I have no doubt we’ll be there for one another for the next twenty as well, as long as we’re still breathing. We’ll keep reading the Bible together until we get it right, and yet even when we fall short, we’ll stand as one another’s moral compass and spiritual tether, bound by these touchstones.
Let’s face it, a lot of us say we’re looking for religion and meaning in our lives, but then we go to church on Sunday and cross ourselves and dip our fingers in the holy water and wait for some kind of epiphany. And then we walk out and get into the car and flip on the radio to see how our football team is doing, and we never give God or religion another thought until the next Sunday. That’s how it was for me, before our group started to meet. That’s how it was for a lot of us, really. And some weeks, that’s still how it is, because I’m afraid I don’t find God in ritual and worship. He’s with me wherever I happen to be. I go to church because that’s what you do, but that’s not the only point of connection for me. In fact, it’s not even first and foremost. I find God in the stories of the Bible, in the random acts of kindness I see every day, in the choices I make and the ways I interact with others.
I find God every other Monday, over lunch with my Bible study guys.
The others in the group are cut in a lot of the same ways. They go to church as they see fit—some more frequently than others. They pray to God as they’re moved to do so—some more fervently than others. What we’re after, for the most part, is a way to keep God and religion as an integrated part of our lives, and that’s one of the hardest things to do. A lot of good, well-meaning people struggle with it. It’s not always easy to set aside fifteen or twenty minutes a day of absolute reflection. That’s not a lot of time, but you’d be surprised how tough it can be to carve out those moments. We meet every two weeks, to go through these motions in a semistructured way, but I try to do a little bit of it every day. Fifteen minutes—that’s the timer I set aside for prayer and reflection, day in and day out. Sometimes I’ll fill the time talking out loud to myself. And sometimes I’ll talk to God. I can’t say for sure that He’s listening, although I suspect He is. I’ve come to realize over the years that it’s OK if I take my life’s challenges, problems, and celebrations directly to Him. I set it up so it’s just as if He’s sitting there with me. Some days, it’s real work. I’ll tell myself I’ll do it in the car, but then I can’t bring myself to turn off the radio. I want to listen to O.A.R. or the stock report, or maybe I’ve just gotten the new Pearl Jam CD I want to play, so I bargain. I give fifteen minutes to God and fifteen minutes to Eddie Vedder, because you can’t talk to God with Pearl Jam on in the background. You just can’t. How would you feel if I was talking to you and I had Pearl Jam blaring on the speakers?
Back to church for a moment. I try to go every Sunday when I’m home in Columbus, but I don’t beat myself up if I can’t make it. My batting average is a whole lot better than hit-or-miss, but I won’t let it hang over my head like a chore. If I can’t make it to the early service, I might seek out the late-afternoon service, but it’s not any kind of deal breaker if I skip a week or two. I set this out to show that I’m not some fire-and-brimstone holy roller. I’m just a regular guy, going to church, not always paying good attention. Same as most people, right? But as I said, that’s not where God lives for me. Anyway, it’s not the only place He dwells. I see God in all His wondrous creations, and I shout about it in what ways I can, even though it sometimes seems as if most people don’t want to hear it. They’ll say, “Well, if there is a God, why did He allow this disaster to happen?” Or, “Why does He allow bad things to happen to good people?” That’s the classic response of the nonbeliever, and I always answer that it comes down to free will. I say that once God gave us the ability to think and act and choose for ourselves, all kinds of crazy things started happening.
Not too long ago, I was struggling with the notion of how fragile life can be. I took this thought out of bed one morning and gathered my wife, Karen, and our twin daughters and said, “Girls, I love you dearly, but I must tell you something. I cannot control the future. I cannot control life. Only God can control these things, but what I can control is how I worry, so I’m gonna stop worrying about everything. I’ll still worry a little bit, but I trust in God to take care of us, to take care of you.”
“OK, Daddy,” Karen said, pulling the girls in close for a family hug. “We love you, too.”
Now, did my daughters, Emma and Reese, have any idea what the heck I was talking about? Probably not, but they knew in a full-on way that I loved them and that I trusted God to help me take care of them, and that was enough. I don’t think they gave it another thought. They just moved back to whatever they were doing, and Karen went about her morning, and that was that.
Let’s be honest, every parent worries about his or her kids, whether they’re nine years old or thirty-nine, and so will I, despite this pronouncement. And yet making a grand statement like this in the eyes of the Lord and my wonderful family helps me to dial down that worry a notch or two—because, ultimately, God is in charge.
This was set out for me in no uncertain terms by my former congressional colleague Tom Coburn, who’s now the junior senator from Oklahoma. We served in the House of Representatives together, just after my daughters were born, at a time when there was an awful lot of worry in my life. The girls were especially tiny when we took them home from the hospital, each weighing in at about four pounds, and at some point soon after, I had to return to Washington. I hated having to leave Karen and the girls like that, but duty called—and so did I. Every couple of hours, I raced to the bank of phones in the cloak room of the House and called home to see how the babies were doing. They were so fragile, so vulnerable … of course, I worried.
I didn’t know it at the time, but Tom Coburn was watching me. He stood there, a big, unlit cigar jutting from his mouth, taking note but not saying anything. He’s an obstetrician, so he had some experience with nervous fathers, and he finally came up to me one day and said, “Kasich, stop worrying about your kids. They’re God’s children, not yours.”
Talk about a Wow! moment, huh? It got me thinking, I’ll say that.
It’s not just moments of crisis or difficulty that leave us looking for God’s hand, because He is with us in moments of triumph as well. Indeed, some people might say that’s when He’s with us most of all. The Bible is filled with stories of individuals meeting with great and sudden success, only to find themselves in dire circumstances because they don’t know how to keep humble in the face of it, and when I get together with the guys in the study we seek to understand these dilemmas as well. How is it possible not to return hatred to those who hate you? Or to walk a long, lonely road and become the leader you are meant to be? Here again, faith is key, but we remind one another that it doesn’t only come into play in times of extremis. Faith matters when things are going great, too.
That tsunami in Asia not too long ago? You might ask why God created that. Indeed, we put the question to the group when we got together just after the story broke, and together we determined that the better, more salient question was why the leaders over there didn’t put in a warning system, why they left all those people vulnerable to this type of natural disaster. And then, why did those mud slides occur a couple of years later, when any halfway decent environmental engineer could have told you not to cut down all those trees from the slopes along the coastline? If the government hadn’t looked the other way while these people cut down all those trees, because they were poor and desperate for the riches their resources might bring, then perhaps the tsunami and the resulting mud slides wouldn’t have been so calamitous. But free will opens up the world to lots of horrible outcomes. And it opens up an answer for why God “allows” these kinds of terrible things to happen—namely, because we allow them to happen.
Some folks hear an explanation like that and get to wondering why God doesn’t get involved more than He does. Why He doesn’t save us from ourselves. It’s a good question—the question of the ages, really. In response, I always say, “You might want to ask Him when you get up there.” It’s a flip answer, I know, but I’m almost convinced that when we do get to heaven, there won’t be room in our heads for any of the mundane questions that troubled us on this earth.
You’ll note that I say I’m almost convinced, because in the end, I can’t be certain. I can know a thing in my heart, and in my soul, and in my bones, but then my head gets in the way. I can’t help but take a pragmatic view—or maybe it’s more scientific than anything else. And yet I still hold fast to the notion of a peaceful, wondrous, unknowable eternity. Yes, I’m almost convinced, but that’s close enough for right now.
And I’ve got my Bible guys to help me the rest of the way.
My Bible guys. This is a book about them and their search for meaning as much as it is about me and mine. There are eight of us now, if you count Ted Smith, the Methodist minister we brought in at the very beginning to lead this ragged flock. Over the years, we’ve counted a few more among our ranks. Some we lost to flagging interest or conflicting schedules. One we lost to proximity—or a sudden lack thereof—although even after moving clear across the country, he still checks in from time to time. One we lost to a sudden death that set our group reeling. And these days, our numbers are sometimes thinned during the winter, when the snowbirds and empty nesters among us retreat to warmer climes—although then, too, folks keep connected by cell phone and e-mail. They want to know what they’re missing—but more than that, they want to be heard, even long-distance.
As a group, we look a whole lot different from how we did when we were just starting out, but at our core we’re much the same. A little older, maybe. A little thicker around the middle and thinner up top, certainly. A little wiser, we hope. A little more steeped in our beliefs, perhaps. As individuals, we’ve had our share of struggles and triumphs. We’ve had some financial or career difficulties. We’ve had divorce and heartbreak of one stripe or another. We’ve buried parents and nursed sick spouses and battled our own ailments. We’ve had our winning streaks, too. We’ve welcomed children and grandchildren. And on and on. Basically, we’ve mirrored the human condition, as reflected by eight or ten or twelve men, at various stages in their adult lives, coming together in and around Columbus, Ohio, to find purpose and meaning in those lives by reading the Bible and talking about it and helping one another figure it all out.
From time to time, we’ll invite a guest to join us for a session, and our visitors are almost always surprised. I don’t know what these people expect, but they come away thinking, Hey, this is pretty cool. At least, that’s what they tell me afterward. And it is pretty cool. It really, really is. Why? Well, if people are honest about it, they’ll all tell you they’re searching for some type of meaning in their lives. And here we are, searching. We don’t sit in judgment. We’re just normal guys, coming together, having lunch, talking about real issues. We don’t have our hands up in the air, and you don’t see the flames of the Holy Spirit spilling into the restaurant when we open the door. There’s none of that. We’re just normal guys, regular slobs. It’s like that Joan Osborne song where she asks, “What if God was one of us? Just a slob like one of us?”
That’s us, just a bunch of slobs, trying to make our way home like the song says, but we have raised our game. We have.
It’s become a real marker for each of us. The book. The group. The study. The routine. And it’s been a highlight on our calendars for as long as any of us care to remember. Lately, we’ve been meeting at the Monte Carlo, a small Italian joint in a strip mall in Westerville. We’ve had a few regular haunts over the years, but we’re in the middle of a nice run at the Monte. Nobody bothers us. We’re free to ponder and pontificate over whatever passage Ted has assigned for us that week. By this point, we’ve been through every book of the Bible a couple of times over, and we still don’t have a firm handle on it. We have our favorite passages and our long-held views. We have our history and our common ground. We’ve added a couple of new guys to our group in recent years, to fill in some of the blanks following our losses, and with each new set of eyes and ears, there’s a new point of view. Plus, we’re all at different stages in our lives, so we see things a little differently each time through.
Every couple of months, there’ll be a new server assigned to our table, and I always wonder what runs through these waitresses’ heads as they serve us for the first time. We make an incongruous picture, I’ll say that. A table full of men—a doctor, a lawyer, a business executive, a financial advisor, a former congressman—coming together in a busy restaurant to talk about things like greed and avarice, ego and envy. Right in the middle of the lunch rush.
We don’t really need those Monte menus by this point, but we look at them just the same. Most of us usually order the same thing each time out: soup, chef’s salad, heroes, spaghetti. There are specials, but we don’t want to hear them, because it’s not about the food. This is not a knock on the Monte kitchen—hey, the food’s great!—but we’re there for the study, and none of us wants to derail the conversation by spending too much time on what to have for lunch. Yet we still have to eat, so there’s this odd scene that unfolds, where we can be talking about, say, a passage from the book of Mark. Specifically, we’ll get to talking about doubt—one of the grand, recurring themes of the Bible. We’ll get right into our thoughts on the assigned reading, after everyone has settled in, which is around the time most waitresses seem to want to come by to take our orders.
One Monday, reading Mark, we’d started in on our own doubts and fears and uncertainties a beat or two before the Monte waitress had a chance to swoop in and do her thing.
My friend Bob Blair, one of the newest members of our group, was weighing in with his take just as one of the newer waitresses approached him from behind to take his order.
(Not incidentally, there are two Bobs on our current roster, so they go by their last names to avoid confusion. The other Bob—Bob Roach—has been with us since the outset, but he’s always been known as Roach, so it works out. Early on, there was also Bob Davies, a well-known Columbus area physician and one of our original members, who died in a plane crash—for some reason, he was always Bob or Dr. Davies. Also early on, there was Bob McQuaid, a guy I met down at the gym, whom we all called Coach. That’s four Bobs in all but only two at present. Sound confusing? Well, I guess it is.)
Blair said, “This passage in Mark just blows me away. It stops me every time I read it. There’s Jesus, who’s supposed to be God. He’s up on that cross. He’s close to dying, but He’s not dying yet. And He says, ‘I doubt God.’ That tells us even Jesus doubts, so how can we help but doubt?”
Here, I had to disagree. “I’m not so sure that was a doubt, Bob,” I said.
Blair: “How can you think that wasn’t a doubt?”
Me: “He said, ‘God, why hast thou forsaken me?’ He didn’t say, ‘God, I didn’t know you were up there.’ That’s a different issue.”
Blair, throwing up his hands: “You’re gonna have to explain that one to me.”
Here we fell into a number of different sidebar conversations, where we took turns voicing some of the doubts we’d had in our own lives over the years, until Ted tried to move the conversation along and keep our group on point. “Well,” he said, “there’s a difference between whether or not you believe God exists and whether or not you believe God pays any attention to any one person here on earth. Whether or not it makes any difference. The Greeks believed in a master clock-winder, and some people think that’s what started this out, but He didn’t have much to do with sinners. So that’s a basic issue here.”
At around this time, our poor waitress finally muscled her way in, tentatively at first, still not knowing if she should interrupt to take our orders or hang back and let our conversation lose a little steam. The veterans knew just to step up and have at it and that, one by one, we’d break stride and tell her what we’d like for lunch while the rest of us kept right on talking, but this was a tough spot for a rookie. I could see that. As I said, we make an odd picture, talking about this stuff in such a public way, surrounded by local construction workers on their lunch breaks, area high school teachers with a free period, service guys grabbing a bite on their way to or from a call, and anyone else who happens to alight at this pizza and pasta place in a strip mall in Westerville in the middle of a Monday afternoon.
And it’s not as if the Monte is such a big, cavernous place that these other people can’t hear us. We always sit in the front of the restaurant, right by the window and the open kitchen and the cash register—as if we’re in some diorama at a museum. The quarters are close, tight. Folks can certainly hear us, but it’s not as if they’re hanging on our every word.
We are, though.
Bob Blair gave his order to the waitress and then picked up on Ted’s point. “Why would Jesus say that?” he asked. “I mean, He knew He was going to heaven, right? Even with everything that was going on?”
“I’ll tell you what,” Ted said, in this meticulous, thoughtful way he has of choosing his words carefully. “You have somebody driving big old spikes through your wrists and through your ankles and hanging you up on a pole. Then tell me you don’t have any doubts.”
“But He’s Jesus,” Blair countered. “He’s not like us. If He can’t have complete faith, how can we?”
Now it was Bob Roach’s turn. “When He was on earth, He was just like you and me,” Roach offered. “Felt the same things as you and me. He was manifest, just like you and me. And so, after five or six hours, He was, like, ‘Lord, why are you doing this to me?’”
“Yeah, He was just like us,” I said, “but without sin. That’s the difference maker. He could fend off all this other stuff. Even in the desert, when the devil is saying, ‘I’m gonna give you the world, I’m gonna give you riches, I’m gonna give you everything.’ Tempting Him. And it says right there in the Bible, He was tempted. It says the devil went away to wait for a better time. So He was man, too, Bob.”
“That’s a tricky one,” offered Tim Bainbridge, our newest member. “Temptation. Not just in the Bible but everywhere you look.”
Blair: “How do we know He was tempted?”
Roach: “‘He cried. He wept.’ Absolutely, He was tempted.”
Me: “Because He was a man, just like us, even though He was God. It’s the great mystery.”
Roach: “He was just feeling the same kinds of things we all feel.”
Tim asked if this might mean that Jesus was tempted by Mary Magdalene.
Ted thought this over for a heartbeat and said, “I’m sure He was. I think that’s a very reasonable conclusion, especially if she was some shapely chick wearing a tight outfit.”
“Mary Magdalene?” Blair said, somewhat incredulous. “Somehow I don’t picture that.”
Me, stirring up trouble: “Oh, she was a babe.”
Blair: “How do we know that?”
Me: “We know because the Bible tells us so. It says she was a ‘prosperous prostitute.’ I don’t know how you get to be a prosperous prostitute unless you’re a babe.”
And that’s how it goes, essentially. Here the talk happened to be about Jesus and ultimate faith, but more often than not, it’s about us. More often than not, it’s about how we navigate our days, how we take the lessons we learn from scripture and transpose them onto our lives. We talk through these various issues as they come up in these passages. We talk as men, as friends who have known one another for years and years. We talk as students, wanting to be led. We work our way through the talking points Ted prepares for us before each study. (Or sometimes we don’t.) We eat. We ask after one another’s families.
We turn the conversation on each other and on ourselves.
Where do I go when the water rises? I reach for the Good Book and my good friends in the study. That’s the great windfall of our time together after all these years, the deep and lasting friendships that have developed as a kind of by-product. We all knew one another, going in, in a kinda, sorta way, but now we really know one another. Now we draw from these underlying, sustaining friendships in such a way that it bolsters our shared search for meaning. We’ve become the first responders in one another’s lives, and this right here has been a mighty outgrowth of our group. I’ve got other friends, from other walks of life, but my Bible guys have become some of my closest friends, because we’re working our way through this stuff together.
I suppose we might have come to a similar place on our separate journeys had we thrown in with more traditional study groups in our own churches, but there’s something organic about what we’ve built together. We’re not some social-outreach program on a church calendar, which we could attend or not, as we please. Nothing against any of those fine efforts, but here we’re accountable to one another. In fact, when you don’t show up at the Monte for a session or two, the others will get on you about it. When you don’t contribute or offer much of note or insight, they’ll get on you for that, too. They get on you, but they know you’re yar. They know your heart’s in the right place. And out of that sense of responsibility and commitment, we’ve developed fine and enduring friendships. It’s quite remarkable, one of the true joys of my life, and it all flows from the unshakable bonds that have been built on the back of our shared search for meaning and purpose.
Together, we can make sense of almost anything—anyway, we’ll give it our best shot. We might make a mess of it at first, but we’ll keep at it until we reach a kind of consensus or, at least, a place where we can all agree to disagree. I’ll listen to their take, and then I’ll share mine, and we’ll mix and match until we hit on some common ground. In looking back at these ancient texts, we keep one eye focused on the here and now. We invite our eternal perspective to raise our behavior to a higher level.
At the center of a lot of our discussions is the question of how God works. What’s He up to? We can go around and around on a subject, but that’s what we come back to. When does God intervene? When does He choose not to intervene? Why were there so many people killed in battle in the stories of the Old Testament? Why are so many people killed in battle today? Why are there so many trials we’re meant to endure? Does God present us with all these difficulties, or does He merely allow them to happen? These are the kinds of questions we put to one another, and then sometimes we turn it around and make it more personal. How do I forgive somebody who tried to steal my business from me? When do I take risks in life? How do I treat my wife? Are there different places in heaven? What kind of sin is it to lust? How can we steer our children in a more positive, more purposeful direction? When do I stand up and tell people something that they don’t want to hear? How much should I tithe?
All the time, people ask me how to get through this or that trial without faith, and I don’t have an answer. At this point, my faith is so deeply ingrained that I can’t separate myself from it enough to address that kind of theoretical question. But then, these same people might look on at that kind of boundless faith and dismiss it as a crutch, to which I’ll always say, “Hey, I don’t think a crutch is such a bad thing.” We all need to lean on someone or something, right? Might as well lean on the Big Guy. Might as well look to the Good Book for answers and lean on what we find. But there’s no magic elixir. When the water rises, the pain is still there. There is no potion or spell to wash away the tears and suffering of this world, but there is a map. There is a place to start, a foundation, and I find it in the books of the Old and New Testaments.
My Bible guys and me, to a man, we’ll tell you that when we started this thing twenty years ago, we didn’t have a clue. Now we have a clue. Heck, we’ve got more than a clue. We have a much deeper understanding of life and religion and faith. Along with that, as a kind of bonus, we have a much deeper understanding of one another. You have to realize, we didn’t start from scratch on this thing. We all had a core set of values that we brought with us to this enterprise, but that was mostly theoretical. Now we work really, really hard to practice those values. We don’t always get them right, but we get close. We’re still a bunch of slobs, trying to make our way through this life, but our discipline is greater. Our study is stronger. Our faith is deeper.
We all believe the Bible is inspired. It’s the word of God, rendered by man. We don’t agree on everything, even as we’ve come to a kind of shared view. We all get that the stories of the Old and New Testaments are contextual; in other words, you need to understand each chapter in the context of its time. Some of the stories are historical; some are allegorical. On that, most of us are in agreement as well, although we’re sometimes split on what’s real and what’s reimagined. For example, I don’t really think it much matters if every animal on the face of the earth was in that ark with Noah. I’ll hit this a bit harder, a bit later on in these pages, but for now, I’ll just offer that the point of that story about Noah and the ark is that man had gotten so evil that God chose those few He thought were still just and destroyed the rest. Do I believe there really was an ark? Yeah, probably, although it doesn’t matter to me how many people or animals were on board. I don’t sweat those kinds of details, but we find evidence of the ark and of a great flood in the record, so I weigh in on the side of history on this one. Plus, I’ve come to believe that the story is much more powerful as truth than as metaphor; it demonstrates that God can ask things of us that seem impossible. I’ll bet old Noah looked pretty foolish, building that big boat in the middle of the desert, but that’s the whole point. We can all look foolish to others when we answer what we believe is a call from God.
True or not, historically accurate or not, real or imagined, it’s never a game changer for me. I don’t get too worked up over these distinctions, and I don’t propose to have all the answers to life’s questions. Just some—and these I’ve managed to answer in ways that satisfy me. That’s the standard I’ve set for myself, but we’ve all got our own standards. I’m not so arrogant as to presume that my path to enlightenment and eternity is the only path to enlightenment and eternity. The numbers don’t lie. More than half the people on this planet have an entirely different set of beliefs from me and my Bible guys when it comes to this stuff. That’s fine. If you ask me how to get to Cleveland, I can tell you the best route that I know. Ask someone else, and he’ll give you a whole different set of directions. Go to six or seven others, even, and they’ll give you six or seven other routes, and at the end of the day, each one might get you where you’re going.
But I’ll put it to you plain. I’ll let you know why I think my route is the best route. If I think you ought to take Interstate 71 into Cleveland, then that’s what I’ll tell you. If I believe the way to make it to the Promised Land is to retain Jesus as your lawyer, I’ll say that, too. That’s the way I’ve come to look at it. He is our advocate before the Father. He can advocate for anyone—Muslim, Jew, Hindu. But I happen to believe that He’s the guy. That’s what makes me a Christian. This doesn’t mean you have to accept my beliefs any more than I have to accept yours, but this is where I am.
And how I got here is pretty interesting.
© 2010 John Kasich