A Tale of Two Bruces
Posted on October 30, 2011
You can’t trust water: Even a straight stick turns crooked in it.
— W. C. Fields
Men are able to trust one another, knowing the exact degree of dishonesty they are entitled to expect.
— Stephen Leacock
I never trusted good-looking boys.
— Frances McDormand
A lie can travel half way around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.
— Charles Spurgeon
Learning to trust is one of life’s most difficult tasks.
— Isaac Watts
Over a period of time, I’ve pretty much believed all these ideas about trust. The last one, however, turns out to have the most truth for me. When I arrived back at church, it was with a great deal of trepidation. The idea of exploring trust was something I’d only just begun. I didn’t know why I wanted to be there, though I was suddenly fascinated with the idea that church just might not be what I remembered. I found out Lake Shore had a website and I clicked my way through everything they had on the site. I came upon their labyrinth quite by accident.
What a beautiful place! The picture showed a gleaming pathway of crushed granite, neatly enclosed by a low wall. The whole thing was manicured and surrounded by a grassy field. I’d been introduced to labyrinths while living in New Mexico and found them peaceful. The caption said it was located behind the church and across the creek bed. Wow, I thought, I wonder where they’re hiding that? I’d been to the church, I’d seen behind the church, I had no idea there was a creek bed. I imagined, perhaps, you had to look a little more closely.
I decided I’d have to find this labyrinth. It looked like a peaceful place and I thought I might be able to quiet my mind a little there and try to sort out these new, strange feelings. Quieting my mind was something I’d not been able to do since somewhere in childhood.
I was living about six blocks away from the church, so it was easy to get there whenever I wanted. One afternoon, I drove past the church and on around the U the street makes. There was a large, open field, but still no labyrinth. It was February, so there wasn’t a lot of green around. As I approached the church from the other side, I found it. Well, I thought I’d found it. I saw a low wall. I saw a path leading up to an opening in the low wall. I saw nothing that looked like the picture on the website. Still, this had to be the place. I was running out of back-of-church. I stopped the car and walked up to the opening. There was a plaque there dedicating the labyrinth to Becky Henderson. Becky had been a member of Lake Shore before her death. Friends and family had built the labyrinth in her honor.
I’d found the green, though. In what had clearly been a labyrinth, there were weeds of every sort. You know the type. They insist on thriving despite freezing temperatures. I walked in and pushed my way through the weeds along the path. Instinctively, I began to weed for a moment. This sad looking place reminded me of my life, choked by too much pain, too much anger, too little trust.
I first walked into that labyrinth on Ash Wednesday, 2009. I stopped by just before the service. I’d barely made it back to church and here I was coming to an Ash Wednesday service no more than three weeks after first arriving. I couldn’t explain why I wanted to be there for every service, but I did. Again, the service was beautiful and frightening at the same time. I went home after the service and emailed the pastor of the church. I explained that I’d been in the labyrinth, that it sort of needed some care, and asked if she would mind if I did some weeding. Her reply was priceless. In part, she wrote, “As for the labyrinth, we would LOVE for you to weed anytime you’d like. We’re working on how best to tend to it but haven’t yet figured that out so if it’s therapeutic for you all the better! No expectations from us, just gratitude and a welcome to it!” This sounded very much like permission, so I began to weed.
One particularly cold, blustery, Saturday morning, I was in the labyrinth weeding. I was trying to get some of the taller weeds up and out so it would look a little more like I’d accomplished something. I suppose I’d started trying to repair my own life in that way – big stuff first, smaller stuff next. As it turns out, some of what I considered smaller stuff was really some of the biggest stuff. Anyway, after weeding for a while I looked up and noticed a man approaching the labyrinth. I wasn’t at all sure I wanted visitors. Already, this was my quiet place – my sacred place. Besides, he might be a church member. In fact, it was. Bruce Neatherlin (Bruce I), I later found out, was a long-time Lake Shore member. He had a gregarious manner and an inviting smile. Still, he was a man and I was still pretty unsure how I felt about men – and church men in particular. What if he wanted to talk about sports? I’d long since stopped pretending I enjoyed or even understood sports. Worse yet, he might want to talk about religion.
Bruce introduced himself and we ended up talking for quite a while about, well, I’m not sure I remember exactly what we talked about. I shared with him that I wasn’t particularly certain about this returning to church business, but was trying to sort that out. I even shared with him that Baptists were a favorite target of mine when discussing how religion had ruined the world. Nothing, it seemed, ruffled Bruce’s feathers. Finally, Bruce put a hand on my shoulder and said, “Ben, we’re Baptists – barely.” I wasn’t certain I knew what he meant, but I knew I suddenly felt comfortable. Here was a man who was confident enough in his own beliefs, confident enough in his own faith, to have fun with it. I remember far too much seriousness, far too much concentration of blasphemy. Religion was serious business, after all, and not something about which you were to have fun.
Bruce walked away and left me with a few new things to think about. These people weren’t supposed to be friendly. These people were supposed to be judgmental, stern, condemning. But, I’d seen none of that in the few Sundays I’d been in church. Was this some new approach to roping in new grist to the mill? I was trying to keep up my defenses, but these people continued to make that more and more difficult.
So, I continued to weed. My vertigo was getting ever worse, but I tried to weed each Saturday morning no matter how I felt or what the weather. After all, I felt bad most days. Why should this be any different? I continued to weed through March and into April. There was a ground cleanup day the first week of April that year. Church members were asked to come that Saturday morning to pick up, spruce up the grounds for Easter. I was at my usual post in the labyrinth, not terribly excited that I’d have company around me. I suppose that’s because it was still all about me. Here I was trying to sort out my life and my return to church and I really didn’t need to be interrupted by a bunch of people. That didn’t have to make sense, it was just the way my mind worked. I was there earlier than anyone else, so watched as people began to arrive in the parking lot.
At some point, a couple of people were sent over to the labyrinth to help me. One of those people was Bruce Evans (Bruce II) – and son, Chandler. Oh, my, just what I needed – some kid making noise and interrupting my train of thought. Besides, I knew the people coming over to help weren’t going to do it right. This was a delicate operation. One of the members had already suggested nuking the place with poison. Much faster than actual weeding, for certain, but not exactly safe for those who might want to walk a labyrinth. A typical male response, I thought to myself.
Bruce introduced himself and we talked a little as we weeded. We ended up talking about William P. Young’s The Shack. Seems I talked to just about everyone about The Shack. The book had so much to do with my showing up at church and, besides, I didn’t know what else to talk about with “churchies.” The book was, after all, sort of about religion. We had a pleasant conversation and Bruce indicated that he thought he needed to read The Shack. After a while, he and Chandler left me to continue my task. Once alone again, I went back over the parts I’d been “helped” with to clean it up better. They seemed like lovely people, but I just didn’t think they really knew how to take care of a labyrinth. Obviously, I had a few more things to work out.
Early on, I’d had a conversation with Dorisanne in her office, expressing my confusion over wanting to be in church. She suggested that perhaps we could get me to come to Wednesday night supper, maybe even Sunday School. Whoa! Good grief, I’d just gotten there. Now she wanted me to come more often? Wasn’t Sunday morning worship enough? However, I ended up coming to a Wednesday night supper, after all. I found it was a good way to get to know some of the other members. It was a start. I also found out that one of the Sunday School classes was going to be reading and discussing The Shack. I knew I wanted to be there.
I was an oddity in that classroom. I sat in the midst of people who’d been in Sunday School and church all their lives. While that had been true of my mother, I still couldn’t fathom that these people could have wanted to be there for all those years. Really, they didn’t seem to feel they had to be there, just that they wanted to be there. On the flip side, the class seemed as fascinated with me as I was with them. I had never been in a Sunday School class in my adult life. I didn’t know how to act and was quite nervous. Introductions all around, not one name did I remember by the end, with the exception of Bruce Evans.
The discussion of the book started. It was interesting to hear the various takes on the plot and characters. The book had naturally taken on a very different meaning for me than for the others. After all, they’d been in church all those years I wasn’t. I’m pretty sure they hadn’t tensed each time Jesus entered the plot. I was pretty okay with the representation of God and the Holy Spirit. It was Jesus who gave me the problem. I suppose the others in the class hadn’t been bashed over the head with Jesus by “concerned” Christians quite as thoroughly as I. Even so, the discussion was absolutely fascinating. Then, one of the women in the class read some biographical information about the author she’d found on the internet. I wasn’t aware the author had also been sexually abused as a child. Things started to fall into place. I began to see why I’d connected with the book and the author. I nervously shared a little of my own story with the class. They didn’t throw me out.
After the worship service that day, I was talking to Bruce (I). I told him I wasn’t sure I should have shared what I did in Sunday School. After all, I didn’t really know these people. Bruce put a hand on my shoulder and said, “It’s okay, Ben. You’re in a safe place.” That just didn’t sound quite right to me. I was in church, after all. On the other hand, a part of me knew he was right, even though I wasn’t entirely certain how that could be.
Two Bruces. Two men who were to show me in very simple ways how to continue the road back to trust. I don’t think they knew it, but their quiet actions helped wake me up. I’d spent too much of my life blaming men, too much time frightened of men. Bruce (I) was older than me, Bruce (II) was younger. Two entirely different generations. And yet, they both obviously knew something I didn’t. They both allowed themselves to reach out and touch another in a completely honest, caring way without fear of seeming soft. By their actions, they both said “follow me” in a way that reassured me it was okay to stay, to look around me to see other men in whom I could trust, to begin to question a belief system that had kept me hiding in the dark for most of my life.
Trust is a process. I’d lost most of it somewhere along the way. I’d become too rigid to see any way to examine my own beliefs about, well, everything. And yet, here were two men who knew there really can be trust in the world. They would help open up the way to being able to see beyond my “truths”. My hope is that you’ve found your own two Bruces. Without trust, it seems, life is just a series of desperate lies we tell ourselves about how to remain safe from pain. With trust, I see that avoiding pain isn’t the issue. The real issue is finding a place where it can all be shared – the pain, yes, but also the joy.
Thanks be to God for my two Bruces.