May 23-25, 1997. Canceled plans and a trendy haircut. (#132)

For the last few months, I had been volunteering as a leader with The Edge, the junior high school youth group at Jeromeville Covenant Church.  Every year, the students go to Winter Camp over a weekend in January or February, and Adam, the youth pastor, gives them all a mixtape of Christian music from many different artists and genres. Back in 1997, there was no Spotify or YouTube for people to share their favorite music with friends. Instead, we Generation X-ers would play songs from compact discs or cassette tapes, one at a time, and record them on blank tapes. I had begun volunteering with The Edge shortly after Winter Camp that year, so I did not get a copy of Edge Mix ’97, but I borrowed it from the youth group music library and made a copy for myself.  I discovered many Christian bands and musicians through Edge Mixes over the years.

One of the more intriguing songs on Edge Mix ’97 was called “Hitler’s Girlfriend,” by a band based in Bay City called the Dime Store Prophets.  It was a slow rock song, with lyrics that I found a little mysterious.  The chorus said, “I’m not myself until you are you, if I close my eyes, I’m killing you.”  I thought the song had something to do with lamenting the un-Christlike tendency to look away when others were in need. The song also contained the line, “I feel like Hitler’s girlfriend, I’m blind to this and numb to that.”  Some have suggested that Eva Braun, the real-life Hitler’s girlfriend, lived a sheltered life and did not know about the Holocaust, although other historians find this unlikely.

I played that song three times last night while I did math homework.  Although it was the only Dime Store Prophets song that I knew, I wanted it to be fresh in my mind, because the Dime Store Prophets were playing a free live show right here at the University of Jeromeville today, outdoors on the Quad.  University Life, the college group from a large church nearby, not the church I attended, had put this show together, and they had been promoting it at all the local churches and college ministries.  Nothing was going to stop this from being the best day I had had in a long time.

Except maybe for pouring rain.

I did not expect rain this week.  Last Monday had been the first day of hundred-degree heat for 1997, and it felt like the hot, sunny, dry weather of summer had arrived for good.  But today was cool with heavy rain.  A dramatic cooling trend in late May was rare for Jeromeville.  As I rode the bus to school, and sat through my early class, the rain continued to fall, the thick gray sky showing no signs that the rain would clear up any time soon.   Would I have to stand in the rain to watch the Dime Store Prophets?  Was the band even coming anymore?  Would the show be moved indoors?  None of those sounded preferable.

After class, I walked to the Memorial Union to find a place to sit.  The tables were crowded, as was usually the case on rainy days.  Alaina Penn and Corinne Holt from U-Life were sitting at a table with empty seats; I walked over toward them and sat down.

“Hey, Greg,” Alaina said.  “What’s the capital of Morocco?”

“Rabat,” I replied.  I was about to ask why she wanted to know when I saw the campus newspaper, the Daily Colt, on the table in front of her, opened to the page with the crossword puzzle.  Alaina started filling in letters in the puzzle, then paused.  “How do you spell that?”

“R-A-B-A-T,” I said.  “Hey, is the Dime Store Prophets show still happening?  You guys were putting that on, right?”

“It’s canceled,” Corinne answered.  “They canceled yesterday when they heard it would rain.”

That’s right, I thought.  Some people check weather reports in advance to find out if it will rain, so they would be less surprised than I was right now.  “Bummer,” I said.

“What are you up to this weekend, Greg?” Alaina asked.

“I was gonna see the Dime Store Prophets, but now that’s not happening.  So just studying, I guess.”  I could tell that the irritation in my voice was showing.

“JCF meets tonight, right?”

“Yeah.  I’ll be there.”

“See?  You are doing something.  Enjoy that.”

“I will.”




The rain had lightened up a bit by the time I got home from campus, and it was not raining at all when I got to Evans Hall in the evening for Jeromeville Christian Fellowship.  The worship team was about to begin playing, and I had not yet decided where to sit, since I had been mingling and talking.  I looked around and saw Carrie Valentine sitting alone not too far from me.  My brain began overthinking, trying to decide if asking to sit with her was too forward, if it sent the wrong message, if I was setting myself up for disappointment. I thought about what I would say to save face if she said no.  I took a deep breath, told my brain to shut up, and walked toward Carrie.  “Hey,” I said.

“Greg!  Hi!” Carrie replied.

“Mind if I sit here?”

“Go ahead!”

Carrie was a freshman; I had seen her around JCF for much of the year.  Two weeks ago, we had had a long conversation at a party after JCF, alone in someone else’s house while we waited for the rest of the partygoers to return from the grocery store.

After the opening song, announcements, and a few more songs, Liz Williams walked to the stage and mimed turning off an alarm clock.  A skit.  I liked skits.  JCF’s skits had been unusually good this year.  Liz looked at a Bible and said, “I need to read the Bible and spend time with God, but I’m gonna be late for class!  What should I do?  I’ll just take the Bible with me and squeeze in some time between classes.”  I definitely resonated with what Liz’s character was feeling.

I got excited when Ajeet Tripathi and his roommate Darren Ng entered the stage, dressed in suits and ties with dark glasses.  These were recurring characters who had appeared in several other JCF skits this year.  They called themselves Angels of the Lord, but they dressed and acted more like secret agents.

“Time to help her out?” Darren asked.

“Affirmative,” Ajeet replied.

Brent Wang walked past the Angels of the Lord, carrying books and notebooks.  Ajeet and Darren lightly tapped his back.  Brent started coughing and said, “I’m not feeling well.  I need to cancel my class.”

Liz’s character returned to the stage area and looked at the wall, as if reading a note.  “My professor is sick and had to cancel class,” she said.  “Now I have time to do what I’ve been meaning to do all day!”  Liz searched through her backpack, but instead of getting her Bible, she pulled out a folded copy of the Daily Colt.  “The crossword puzzle!” she exclaimed excitedly.  The crowd chuckled at this humorous turn of events.  Liz sat down looking at the newspaper, holding a pencil, as Eddie Baker walked by.  Liz looked up and asked Eddie, “Hey, what’s the capital of Morocco?”

I laughed loudly, remembering my conversation with Alaina earlier, but then stopped suddenly when I realized that this quote was not as hilarious to everyone else.  Carrie looked at me, wondering why I found this so funny; I wanted to explain, but I did not want to interrupt the performance.  Now was not the time.

The skit continued, with Liz continuing to make excuses not to read her Bible.  This led into a talk by Dave McAllen, one of the full-time staff for JCF, giving a talk about making time to be with God.  He referenced Luke 5:16, in which Jesus, despite being God in the flesh, still made time to get away from the crowds and pray to his Father.

I turned to Carrie after the final song.  “That was a good talk,” I said.

“I know,” Carrie replied.  “It’s so easy to get caught up in everything you have to do and forget to read the Bible.”

“I’ve been doing a little at this lately, at least during the week.  I take my Bible to the Arboretum every day after my first class and read and pray for a while.”

“That’s so cool!  I should find a spot like that.”

“It’s a peaceful little spot in the middle of God’s creation,” I said.  “But, yeah.  The skits have been really funny lately.  This morning, I walked up to some friends who aren’t from JCF, and one of them was doing the crossword puzzle, and when she saw me walk up, the first thing she said to me was, ‘What’s the capital of Morocco?’  So I laughed when they put that same clue in the skit tonight.”

“Oh my gosh!  That’s hilarious!  I don’t usually get very far when I try to do the crossword puzzle.”

“I can usually finish most of it,” I said.  “But there’s usually a few letters at the end that I can’t get.  I finish the puzzle maybe once every week or two.”

“Wow!  That’s good!”

“Ajeet and Darren are funny when they play the Angels of the Lord.”

“I know!  Remember the one where they shaved Todd’s head?  I had no idea they were gonna do that!”

“Me either!  That was amazing!  And remember that series of skits they did at the beginning of the year, where Brian or Lorraine would interrupt and put up a sign with the night’s topic?”

“Yeah.  Kinda.”

“And at the end of that series, when they both started appearing with signs.  I thought that was funny.”

“I think I missed that one.”

“There was one where Brian put up the sign, then a few minutes later Lorraine walked out to put up the sign, and she tore down Brian’s sign and put up her own.  Then the next week, they both showed up with signs at the same time.  They saw each other, and they started fighting with lightsabers.”

“Whoa,” Carrie exclaimed.

“Yeah.  They were fighting, then they stopped and looked at each other, and they embraced and made out.”  Carrie gave me a horrified and confused look as I said that last part, and I realized that I had misspoken.  “Made up!  I meant made up!” I hurriedly explained.  “Like they weren’t fighting anymore!”

“Oh!” Carrie replied, laughing.  “I was gonna say, this is a Christian group; they did what?”

“Wow.  That was embarrassing.”  I hoped that Carrie would quickly forget that part of the conversation.  “What are you up to tonight?” I asked.

“I should get home,” Carrie said, slumping her shoulders.  “I have so much to do.  I have a paper to write this weekend, and I haven’t started it.”

“Good luck.”

“But I’ll see you soon, okay?”

“Yes.  Take care.”  I looked into Carrie’s dark brown eyes and smiled, and she smiled back.  Whatever I did tonight after JCF, it would not include Carrie, but at least we got to talk again.  Hopefully my accidental statement about making out would not do lasting damage.


Head-shaving had suddenly become all the rage over the last few months.  It seemed like every week or so, another one of my guy friends had shaved his head.  My brother Mark started shaving his head that year.  Even Lorraine had shaved her head.  A few weeks ago, Ajeet and Darren’s Angels of the Lord characters had appeared in another skit.  Todd Chevallier, a third roommate of theirs, played a character who knew that a girl who really liked him, but he did not like her back.  Todd prayed before he went to bed that God would make that girl realize that he was not the one for her.  As Todd lay supposedly sleeping, Ajeet and Darren appeared in their secret agent costumes.  Todd awoke and asked, “Who are you?”

“We are Angels of the Lord,” Ajeet replied.  “The Lord has heard your prayers.  We have come to make you ugly.”  Darren pulled out an electric razor and shaved an asymmetrical stripe across Todd’s hair as the hundred-plus students in attendance gasped and cheered.  Todd’s character woke up the next morning; the girl who liked him saw him, then ran away screaming.  After the talk at the end of the night, Ajeet and Darren finished shaving the rest of Todd’s head, right there in 170 Evans in front of everyone.

On Sunday at church, two days after the rained-out concert, the high school youth intern, a guy named Kevin, got up to make an announcement.  “Last week, the high school group had a car wash, to raise money for a mission trip this summer.  I told them that if we made two thousand dollars, they would get to shave my head.  Well, guess what?  We shattered that goal and raised over three thousand dollars.  So you can watch a bunch of high schoolers shave my head right after the service.”

Of course, I thought.  More head shaving.  At least this one was for a good cause.  I hoped, as a youth group volunteer with the junior high school kids, that I would not get chosen to have my head shaved at any point in the future.  I had read a column once by the humor writer Dave Barry, who wrote that black guys with shaved heads looked cool, but white guys with shaved heads looked like giant thumbs.  I definitely did not want to look like a giant thumb, and I had no plans to follow everyone else into this shaved head craze.

Despite that, though, I was not opposed to watching others shave their heads.  I wandered into the youth room after church, where Kevin sat in a chair in the middle of the room, and four high schoolers took turns running electric razors across his head, watching random clumps of hair fall to the floor.

A friendly and chatty girl from the junior high group named Samantha waved at me.  I walked over to her, and she looked up at me and said, “You’re so tall.”

“I know,” I replied.  “You say that to me a lot.”

“You should shave your head!”

“No, I really shouldn’t.”

“Why not?”

I had a lot of reasons why not.  Instead of telling Samantha about the giant thumbs, I told her about something that had happened two months earlier.  “When I went home for spring break, my brother had shaved his head, and I told my grandma about how all my friends were shaving their heads.  And Grandma told me I better not shave my head.”

“Oh!” Samantha said, an understanding smile breaking out on her face.  “So you have to wait until she dies!”

Wow, I thought.  Out of the mouths of thirteen-year-olds… “That’s not exactly what I was thinking,” I replied.  “Wow.”  I turned back to watch Kevin as the kids finished shaving his head, not really sure how to follow up Samantha’s comment.

When I got home after church, I turned on music while I finished my math homework.  Edge Mix ’97 was currently in the stereo; I left it in and pressed Play.  The Dime Store Prophets song came on midway through the second side, and hearing that song made me feel disappointed all over again that I had not gotten to see them.  The weather that led to the show’s cancellation was just strange.  Two days later, the weather turned sunny and warm again, like it was at the beginning of last week.

The opportunity was not lost forever.  The band rescheduled their show and came to Jeromeville in September, the first weekend after classes started, and I saw them a second time later that school year.  In my late twenties, two counties away, I attended a church where one of the former band members was the worship leader.  I found a box of old Dime Store Prophets CDs when I was helping him throw away old things he did not need anymore, and he let me keep one of each album.

The conversation with Samantha, about my grandmother not wanting me to shave my head, had an odd postscript.  I would soon learn that my grandmother, whom Samantha had practically wished death upon, shared a birthday with Samantha, sixty-three years apart.  And although I never shaved my head completely, as my brother and many of my friends had, I did start gradually getting it cut shorter as I got older.  I typically would go to one of the cheap walk-in haircut places, and depending on who was available to cut my hair, some would cut it shorter than others.  Once, in 2021, my hair got cut longer than I wanted, so the next time I went to get it cut, I got brave and tried having it cut with clippers.  This was the closest I had ever come to shaving my head. And my grandmother died a few hours later.

I made the connection between Grandma’s death and using clippers on my hair later that week, as I was thinking about everything that had happened.  Of course, it was a complete coincidence; I do not blame my grandmother’s death on my use of hair clippers or on Samantha’s statement twenty-four years earlier.  My grandmother was one hundred years old, her health had been declining for quite some time, and sometimes a body just gives out after such a long life.  But the coincidence still stuck out in my mind.


Author’s note: Have you ever gone along with a hairstyle that was trendy for its time? Share an interesting story about that in the comments.

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May 15-16, 1997. The early demise of Evan’s Bible study. (#131)

My roommates Shawn Yang and Brian Burr had started a quote board for our apartment last week.  I had seen quote boards at friends’ houses before.  To me, a quote board appeared to be simply a list of funny things people said, often taken out of context as much as possible for humorous effect.  Brian had a more strict view of quote boards; he felt that the quotes should be more sophisticated than just things that sounded dirty.

When I was young, I often saw commercials during children’s cartoons on television encouraging children to drink milk, touting the health benefits of doing so.  Before the “Got Milk?” slogan spawned countless parodies for decades, the previous slogan was “Milk: it does a body good.”  One day last week, Shawn got home from a run while Brian was watching television and I was eating.  It was a warm day, and Shawn was wearing nothing but running shorts and shoes.  “While I was out running,” Shawn told us, “this carload of girls drove past me.  They rolled down their window, and one of them shouted, ‘Hey!  Do you drink milk?  Because it did your body good!’”

I laughed loudly.  “That’s great!” I said.

“We need a quote board,” Brian announced.  “Like we had at our house last year.  And that needs to go on it.”

A week later, I was again eating at the dining room table around the same time of night.  Shawn was making something in the kitchen, and Brian had just come downstairs.  “So I was reading something the other day about this Christian astrophysicist,” Brian said.  “He has this theory that the universe actually has ten dimensions, and we can’t perceive the other seven.  He thinks that God and heaven exist in those other dimensions.

“Interesting,” Shawn replied.  “Ten dimensions, huh?”

“The universe has ten dimensions,” I said.  “Let’s see, they are…” I began counting on my fingers.  “Length, width, height, time, God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, Star Wars, Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi.”

“YES!” Brian shouted, laughing.  “That’s going on the quote board!”  Brian wrote my quote with a black permanent marker, underneath the random girl’s quote about Shawn’s body.

“Is Josh okay?” Shawn asked.  “I haven’t seen him all week.”

“I saw him yesterday,” I replied.  “He said he had to cover someone’s shift in addition to his usual night shift tonight.”

“You’re gonna live with Josh again in a house next year, right, Greg?”

“Yeah.  And Sean Richards, and Sam Hoffman.”

“That’s cool.  Meanwhile,” Shawn explained, “I have an opportunity back home in Ashwood.  One of my friends back home is opening a store to sell running shoes, and clothes, and accessories, and I’m gonna be his business partner.”

“Nice,” I said.  “So you’re for sure not going into teaching?”

“Nah.  I still enjoy the kids, but the master teacher I was working with this year made me realize I just can’t work with people like that.  And all my classes and paperwork for teaching are done if I change my mind within the next five years.”

“That’s true,” I said.  I wondered if Shawn’s thoughts on this subject would impact my future at all, now that I was considering education as a career option.  I hoped that I would not end up with a master teacher that bad.  I had been assisting in a math class at Jeromeville High School this quarter, and I really liked the teacher from that class, Mr. O’Rourke.

“And I’m off to New York next year,” Brian said.  He had been applying to medical school, and after many rejections and a few waitlists that never materialized, he had been accepted at New York Medical College, in Westchester County just outside of New York City.

Brian and Shawn both went back to their rooms a bit later.  I stayed downstairs, because it was Thursday, and I hosted a small group Bible study through Jeromeville Christian Fellowship at my apartment; people would be arriving soon.  The group had steadily shrank over the course of the year, and one of the leaders had stepped down under mysterious circumstances.  There had only been four or five of us for most of this quarter.

Evan Lundgren, the remaining leader, arrived on time and began setting up, getting out his notes and his Bible.  “We might have a really small group tonight,” he said.  “Jonathan told me he wasn’t coming.”

I nodded.  “So do you know who is coming?”

“I know Jill has been really busy with school.  And Amy hasn’t been to this group in a while.  I haven’t talked to either of them this week.”

“So it might just be us two tonight?”

“Maybe.”

I sat on the couch, feeling uneasy about a Bible study of two people.  Evan did not make me uncomfortable, but I had never been in a Bible study with just me and one other guy.  What would we talk about?  Who would answer when I did not have a good answer?

“So how are classes going?” Evan asked me.

“Good,” I said.  “A lot of work.  I’m only taking twelve units, but it feels like the hardest quarter I’ve ever had.  The computer science class is so much work, and Foundations of Education is a lot of reading and writing.  I’m a math guy; I’m not used to that much reading and writing.”

“Yeah,” Evan chuckled.

“What about your classes?”

“They’re pretty tough, about what I’m used to.  I’m taking this Ancient Greek class that’s really hard.”

“Sounds like it.”

Evan and I continued making small talk for another twenty minutes or so.  I thought I heard a few cars pull up during that time, but none of their drivers or occupants knocked on my door.  “I don’t think anyone else is coming,” Evan said eventually.

“I was thinking the same thing,” I replied.  “So what are we gonna do?”

“I don’t know.  We could try going through what I had planned, but the discussion wouldn’t work very well with just two of us.”

“Yeah.”

“Or we could just cancel and hope someone shows up next week.  But with everyone busy right now, I don’t know if anyone will show up next week either.”

As I thought about how disappointing this was, a thought came to me.  “If you’re gonna cancel, I know Joe Fox and Lorraine’s small group meets at the same time as ours.  I might just go check out their group instead.”

“You’re gonna go there tonight?” Evan asked.  “Can I come with you?”

“Sure.”


Evan and I took two cars to Lorraine’s house, since his apartment was in a different direction from mine.  Taking two cars would be easier than having to take Evan back to his car at my apartment.

I had been to this house once before, but no one was supposed to know about that.  Shortly after Brian and Shawn and I moved into our apartment, we had pulled a prank here, toilet-papering Lorraine’s yard while she and her friends were home, watching a movie.  Brian swore me to secrecy, and I had told no one about that night.  About a month ago, I mentioned that night to Brian, and he admitted that he had eventually caved and told Lorraine about his involvement, but he had not implicated me or Shawn.  I found it noteworthy that I had not caved and the mastermind of the plan had.  I realized as Evan and I walked up to the front door that I had just now told Evan how to get to Lorraine’s house; I hoped that it had not seemed suspicious that I knew this.  Evan did not say anything about it.  I knew Lorraine and some of her roommates from JCF, so I very well could have hung out there sometime before.  Maybe this was not as suspicious as it seemed to me.

I knocked at the door.  Lorraine opened the door a few seconds later.  “Greg!  Evan!” she said.  “What’s up?”

“You mind if we join you?” I asked.  “Our Thursday Bible study kind of fell apart.”

“Sure!  Come on in!  What do you mean, fell apart?”

“We’re the only two left,” Evan explained.

Evan and I followed Lorraine back to the circle of about ten people, most of whom I recognized, in the living room.  There were no open seats, but some people were sitting on the floor.  Evan and I sat on the floor, next to Abby Bartlett and Sean Richards.

I looked over at Abby’s Bible, open to the letter of James, chapter 4.  I opened my Bible to the same place and found the verses that the others were discussing.  I quickly read the verses to myself, then listened to what others were saying for a while.

“Does anyone else have any thoughts about this verse?” Joe asked.  “‘Resist the devil, and he will flee from you?’”

“It seems straightforward,” Abby replied.  “To get the devil to flee, walk away from tempting situations.  Your action of resisting makes the devil flee.”

Your action.  Something about Abby’s words stuck in my mind.  When I first became more serious about my faith last year, I heard a lot about how I was saved by Jesus’ death on the cross, not through anything I had done.  But then I read James at one point, and the verse “faith without works is dead” seemed to contradict the idea of salvation by faith alone.  Maybe these concepts were not contradictory after all.  I raised my hand.  “Yes, Greg?” Joe said.

“There’s that verse earlier in James that says something like ‘faith without works is dead.’ Is that right?”

“Yeah.”

“James is saying here that if you resist the devil, he will flee from you.  You want the devil to flee, but you have to back that up by actively doing something to resist him.  That made me think of the other thing, where if you really have faith, it has to be backed up by your actions.  That’s what shows that your faith is real.”

“That’s a great point,” Joe said.

“Yeah,” Lorraine agreed.  I smiled.  Maybe I would fit in with this small group.

As the study continued, I contributed to the discussion a few more times, as did Evan.  Evan’s group had become so small that there had not been much discussion the last few weeks.  Evan had to do a lot of leading in order for us to make good points.  Joe and Lorraine’s group did not seem like that at all; enough people shared openly to keep the discussion going.

After we finished discussing the Scripture, Joe and Lorraine asked for prayer requests.  We took turns praying for each other, then a few people went home right away while the rest stayed in Lorraine’s living room to mingle.  “Hi,” one guy I did not know said, offering his hand for me to shake.  “I’m Dave.”

“I’m Greg,” I replied, shaking his hand.  “Nice to meet you.”

“Greg will be one of my housemates for next year,” Sean explained to Dave.  I noted in my head that I would be going from sharing the large bedroom with someone named “Shawn” to sharing the large bedroom in a different house with someone named “Sean.”  Interesting coincidence, probably meaningless.  “What brings you guys here anyway?” Sean asked me.  “Looking for a new Bible study?”

“Weren’t you in a Bible study that met at your house?” Abby asked.  “I thought that’s what Josh said.” Abby’s boyfriend was Josh, my roommate who was working tonight.

“Evan led that group,” I said.  “But the other leader quit, and people stopped coming, and now it’s down to just us.  So we came here instead.”

“That makes sense,” Sean replied.

“Greg,” Joe said, walking up to us.  “You’re gonna be in my small group next year, right?”

“Yes.”

“Great.  I’m just trying to figure out how many we’re gonna have.  It looks like it’s gonna be a really big small group.”

“That’s kind of an oxymoron.”

“Yeah.  But we’ll find a way to make it work.  Thanks for coming tonight.”


The next day was Friday, and Jeromeville Christian Fellowship met in the evening.  Janet McAllen, one of the full time staff from JCF, made an announcement at the beginning about small groups for next year.  I did not need to sign up for one, since I had already told Joe that I would be in his group.

After the night ended, I stood up and looked around for someone to talk to.  A freshman girl named Sadie, whom I had spoken to a few times before, was sitting behind me.  “Hey,” I said after she made eye contact with me.  She had blue eyes, which contrasted with her medium brown hair.

“Hi!” Sadie replied.  “How was your week?”

“It was okay,” I said.  I explained to her what happened last night with Evan’s disappearing small group, then asked, “Do you have a small group for next year?”

“Yeah!  I’m gonna be in one of those groups to train future leaders, with that Greek name.  I don’t remember what it’s called.”

“Kairos group?”

“Yeah!  That’s it.”

“I really don’t like the way they’re doing small groups.  Kairos groups are invitation only, and I was never invited to be in one, and there’s gonna be something like five of them next year.  And next year there are two groups just for women, and two groups just for transfer students, and one group just for Filipino students, and it feels like I don’t fit into any of those categories.  There’s only one group left for the rest of us living off campus, Joe Fox and Lydia Tyler are leading that, and Joe said it’s gonna be huge.  Hopefully someone will learn from that, and they’ll stop making all the groups so specific.”

“I hadn’t thought of it that way,” Sadie said.

“And something just feels wrong about that Filipino group.  Next thing you know, they’ll have separate groups for Black students, and White students, and Latinos.  The people who claim to be against racism seem to want to segregate people the most.”

“I know!  It’s so messed up!  Last summer, someone campaigning against that initiative to end affirmative action showed up at our doorstep, and my dad went off on him!  Pretty sure they’re not gonna send anyone to our door ever again.”

“Good!  I mean, yes, racism is an ugly part of our history, but more segregation isn’t the answer, and neither is turning it around and being racist against white people.  That just creates more division, which is the last thing this world needs.”

“I know!”

“I saw graffiti on campus last year that said, ‘Initiative 119 = Genocide.’  How is it that the people who claim not to be racist believe that some races will die without special favors from the government?”

“Wow,” Sadie said, shaking her head.

“I’ve told people that I’m glad I didn’t do more research on Jeromeville before I came here, because if I had known how liberal it was here, I probably would have gone to school somewhere else, and I never would have met my friends here.”

“I feel the same way!  But God puts us places for a reason, right?”

“Exactly,” I said.  “How was your week?”

“Great!  I found out I got picked to write for the Daily Colt next year!”

“Cool!  Congratulations!”

“Yeah!  I was really hoping I’d get that.”

“What are you up to tonight?”

“I need to get home and go to bed.  I have a lot of studying to do.”

“Well, good luck.  I should probably go help the worship team load up their equipment.  That’s my job here.  Have a great weekend!”

“You too!”

I took a deep breath.  That conversation could have gone badly, considering how controversial issues of race can be, but now I knew that Sadie was a safe person with whom to share my conservative leanings.  It was nice having outspoken conservative friends here at a liberal secular university.  I was glad she would be writing for the school newspaper next year; they definitely needed more conservatives on their staff.


Evan and I attended Joe and Lorraine’s Bible study for two more weeks.  After that was the final week of classes for the year, and Evan was able to get Jonathan, Amy, and Jill to join us one more time for an end-of-year potluck.  We just hung out that night  and did not do any actual Bible study.  Five people still seemed small compared to the ten or so that our small group had at the beginning of the year, but it was good to see the others again.

I expressed my concerns about the niche-specific small groups with several people in leadership roles with JCF.  Typically, these people would respond defending the niche groups, since different people in those categories have different backgrounds that affect their spiritual walk differently.  That may be the case, but I felt left out, and that I knew there were others who did not fit into the categories that the small group leaders had chosen to cater to.  The others would tell me that I had nothing to worry about, because Joe and Lydia were leading a group open to all.  I eventually gave up trying to have this discussion; I would just wait until next year and let these people see for themselves how unmanageably large Joe and Lydia’s group would be, because of JCF’s poor choices about running a small group ministry.

Despite all my complaints about JCF’s small groups, I was not planning on leaving the group.  These people were my friends and my spiritual mentors.  I tried out a new group a few times earlier this year, and I had made some new friends there.  I went back to JCF, though, because I did not want to spread myself too thin and be involved in too many different things.  I had a group for next year, and hopefully the small group ministry would change from the inside when people saw that the current methods were not working.  I did correctly predict the eventual fragmentation of JCF into groups for specific cultures, but that happened many years later, and that is not a story for now.


Author’s note: Happy Easter/Resurrection Day! Jesus is risen!

Have you ever been part of a group that just kept getting smaller? What kind of group was it, and what happened to your group? Tell me about it in the comments.

If you like what you read, don’t forget to like this post and follow this blog. Also follow Don’t Let The Days Go By on Facebook and Instagram.


April 27, 1997. A legendary prank for Erica’s 18th birthday. (#129)

The Internet was a much simpler place in 1997.  For one thing, the Internet was just beginning to emerge into the mainstream and had not yet taken over every aspect of everyone’s lives.  Also, most network communication was done through dial-up modems and telephone lines, which did not transfer data fast enough to make videos, high-quality sound, and large numbers of photos feasible for everyday Internet usage.

In the days before profile pictures, people would personalize their Internet experiences with email signatures.  People still do this in business today, where they will end every email with their name, job title, phone extension, and website.  But back in 1997, some people would add a signature to their personal email, featuring a sentence about themselves or their favorite quotes.

My email signature was usually a Bible verse, and I would change it every few months as I discovered new verses that spoke to me.  Last quarter at Jeromeville Christian Fellowship, Janet had delivered a talk about being patient in romantic relationships, and seeking God’s will in that.  Janet organized her talk around the verse that appears three times in the Song of Solomon: “Daughters of Jerusalem, I charge you: Do not arouse or awaken love until it so desires.”

I wanted a girlfriend badly, but I knew that seeking God’s will and not rushing in would be best in the long run.  My recent attempts to get to know cute girls better had all ended in failure, so that talk felt like exactly what I needed to hear.  I made that verse my email signature, not realizing the unintended consequences that doing so would bring.

I had been volunteering with the junior high school youth group at my church for a couple months.  Last week at youth group, I was talking with Danny Foster, one of the boys I knew fairly well, telling him about Dog Crap & Vince, a silly web comic I started drawing last year.  I sent him the link to my website in an email, and my email software automatically attached that Bible verse to the end, as it did with all emails.

The following Sunday, Danny sat next to me at church.  As I was listening to the announcements at the beginning of the service, Danny nudged me to get my attention.  He held an open Bible, and he was pointing at something inside.  I read the verse he was pointing to, Song of Solomon 4:5: “Your two breasts are like two fawns, like twin fawns of a gazelle that browse among the lilies.”  Danny looked at me and giggled; I smiled and nodded before turning my attention back to the announcements.

“Shh,” I whispered to Danny.

Later, a few minutes into the sermon, Danny nudged me again.  He was giggling, just like last time, but now he was pointing to Song of Solomon 7:7: “Your stature is like that of the palm, and your breasts like clusters of fruit.”  A few minutes later, Danny did the same thing, pointing to Song of Solomon 8:8: “We have a young sister, and her breasts are not yet grown.”  Danny did have a sister, Erica, and her breasts were smaller than average, but she was older than him.  I tried to suppress laughter as I pictured Erica Foster as the young sister in Song of Solomon 8:8.

The Song of Solomon describes love in a way that includes some very colorfully descriptive language of the bodies of the two lovers and the interactions between them.  It is also often said to be a metaphor for God’s love for his people and Jesus Christ’s love for the Church.  After the service ended, after Danny had pointed out a few other instances of the word, I asked him if this was the first time he had read Song of Solomon.

“Yeah,” he replied.  “I looked up the verse you quoted in your email.”

I was suddenly horrified to realize that I had been the cause of Danny’s distraction at church today.  Danny had taken it upon himself to look up a verse in the Bible, to read the Word of God, and to me, as a youth group leader, this should feel like a major victory.  But I had inadvertently led Danny directly to the one part of the Bible that would make any boy in his early teens think of things that were anything but Godly.  But the Song of Solomon was still part of God’s Word, and hopefully Danny would understand it eventually.

As I left, Noah, one of the other junior high group leaders, pulled me aside.  “What are you doing tonight?” he asked quietly.

“Nothing,” I replied.

“It’s Erica Foster’s 18th birthday.  We’re gonna prank her room tonight.  She’ll be at church for teen choir practice, then high school group.  Are you in?”

“Sure,” I said.  I always loved a good prank.  “Do I need to bring anything?”

“Bring some toilet paper.”

“I will!  I’ll see you then!”


I pulled up to the Fosters’ house in west Jeromeville a little after six o’clock.  I had been here a couple times before, hanging out with Danny and his friends after church and dropping him off.  Erica was the youngest member of the junior high youth staff.  She was graduating from Jeromeville High School this year, and she had told me that she was going to stay home and attend the University of Jeromeville next year.

The teen choir and high school youth group both met on Sunday nights, so Erica had been at church since five o’clock and would not be home until close to nine at the earliest.  This gave us well over two hours to work safely; we probably would not need that much time.  I knocked on the front door with one hand, precariously holding a large case of toilet paper in the other.  Mrs. Foster opened the door.  “Hi, Greg,” she said.  “They’re in Erica’s room.  Down that hall, last door on the right.”

“Thanks.”

“Looks like you’ve got a lot planned.”

“I didn’t make the plans.  They just told me to bring toilet paper.”

As I turned toward the hallway, I saw Danny in the living room, playing a Nintendo 64 game I did not recognize.  “Greg!” he said.  “This is gonna be so cool.  My sister doesn’t suspect anything.”

“Good!” I said, continuing down the hall as Danny turned his attention back to his game.  Noah Snyder and Martin Rhodes were already in Erica’s room when I got there.  “Hey, Greg,” Noah said.  “Good, you brought more toilet paper.”  Noah motioned for me to put it next to the toilet paper he already brought, about twice as much as what I had.  It seemed like an excessive amount of toilet paper to decorate one bedroom, but when performing a prank of this magnitude, you can never have enough toilet paper.

Erica’s room appeared to have been the master bedroom of this house at some point, since it had an attached bathroom.  I had been inside this house before, and the house appeared to have been added onto at some point in the past.  The addition probably included a larger master bedroom for Mr. and Mrs. Foster, so Erica, as the oldest child, got the next largest bedroom, which also had an attached bathroom.

“So what’s the plan?” I asked.

“We’re gonna wait for Courtney and Brody,” Noah explained.  “They’ll be here in a few minutes.  But we’re definitely gonna TP this room as much as we can.”

“I also said we should take some piece of furniture and put it in the shower,” Martin suggested.  “Like that file cabinet over there.”

“That’s awesome,” I said.

Brody and Courtney walked in just then, both sipping on fruit smoothies in plastic foam cups from a smoothie place downtown called Green Earth, giggling about something.  I noted the irony of a place with an environmentally friendly sounding name using plastic foam cups.  I also noticed that Courtney and Brody looked very much like a couple.  I had been trying to figure out for months if those two were romantically involved, and lately it had seemed very obvious that they were.  Courtney was really pretty, with long blonde hair, but I had not attempted to get to know her better as a love interest.  In the fall, she and Mike Knepper had been spending a lot of time together, and I did not want to compete.  I did not know that Mike was out of the picture, though, until the last couple months when I had seen Courtney and Brody together often.

“Hey, Brody,” Martin said.  “Can you help me carry this file cabinet into the shower?”

“Sure,” Brody replied, laughing.  “Why?”

“No reason.”  Martin and Brody lifted Erica’s file cabinet and began carrying it carefully into the bathroom.  Courtney and Noah had opened the toilet paper; I helped them string it through the curtain rod up and down the wall.  Since I was tall, they kept handing me rolls of toilet paper to attach to things on high shelves, so that toilet paper ran across the room several feet off the ground, like streamers at a party.  I used tape to anchor the toilet paper to high spots on the wall a few times.

I went to look at the file cabinet in the shower.  A set of Magnetic Poetry, small magnets with words on them that could be rearranged into abstract poetry, was stuck to the cabinet.  I had seen these before on others’ refrigerators.  I looked to see if I could spell anything funny.  Some magnets only had prefixes and suffixes, like “er,” “s,” and “ing,” intended to be added to existing words.  I put the word “I” next to “er,” then found “can,” intending to cover the N in “can” with the next word, so that those three magnets would spell “Erica.”  “Smell” was the first funny verb I found.  After a couple minutes, I arranged the magnets to spell “er-I-ca-smell-s-like-puppy-tongue.”  I was not sure what it meant that Erica smelled like puppy tongue, but I did not have a great selection of words to choose from.

“We should do something with these stuffed animals,” Noah said as I walked back to the bedroom.  I was a little surprised to see stuffed animals in Erica’s room; most of my friends did not bring their stuffed animals to college.  But Erica was still in high school, for another month or so, and still in her childhood bedroom at her family’s house, so it made sense that she would have stuffed animals.

Brody carefully stepped around the toilet paper, ducking so as not to make it fall to the ground.  He picked up a stuffed bear and put a strip of masking tape over its mouth, then bound its wrists behind its back with masking tape.  “That’s perfect,” I said as Brody taped the bear’s ankles together.  I took an oversized stuffed mouse and taped it to the underside of a shelf that stuck out from the wall several feet from the ground; I had to use a lot of tape to get it to stay.

“There’s a bunch of empty plastic water bottles over here,” Martin observed from across the room.  “Like thirty of them.  Is she saving them or keeping them to throw away, for recycling?”

“I don’t care,” Brody replied.  “But you should totally fill them up.”

“Great!  I’m on it.”  Martin carried the entire pile of water bottles into the bathroom; it took him three trips.  I repeatedly heard water turn on and off for the next several minutes.

“Hey, Greg?” Courtney said.  “Can you tape this toilet paper to the ceiling?  You’re tall.”

“Sure,” I said.  After doing that, I handed the toilet paper back to Courtney, who weaved it between other elevated strands of toilet paper.  It was becoming very difficult to walk in here as we covered everything in toilet paper.

I heard a noise, a clear note, as if someone was blowing into a musical instrument.  I looked up to see Brody playing a round pitch pipe, the harmonica-like device used by vocalists to determine what note to begin singing.  He blew into the holes for several different notes, then stuck the entire pitch pipe in his mouth.  I took a picture of Brody with the pitch pipe completely in his mouth.  “Someone should show that picture to Erica in a few months, after she’s used the pitch pipe many more times,” I said. 

“Eww!” Courtney replied as everyone laughed.

I continued using masking tape and duct tape to bind and gag some of the stuffed animals and tape others to the wall and to furniture.  Martin finished filling the water bottles, reentering the bedroom just as Noah, Courtney, and Brody finished stringing the last of the toilet paper across Erica’s furniture.

“Dude,” Brody said, pointing at a telephone and answering machine.  “We should leave a greeting on here.”

“Yeah!” Courtney said.  “And then call her from a different phone and leave a message with all of us wishing her happy birthday!”

“Yes!” Noah replied.  Apparently Erica had her own phone in her room, separate from the phone line for the rest of the house.  Lucky.  I wanted that so badly when I was that age.  I wanted to talk to friends from school, particularly girls, without worrying about my parents eavesdropping or wondering who was calling me and making a big deal of it.  Mom always said no, that I rarely talked on the phone anyway, so it was pointless to spend money on a second phone line.  I made the counterargument that I would use the phone more if I had that kind of privacy, but this did not win over my parents.

“We should record ourselves singing something weird, and use that as the greeting that people hear when they call Erica,” Martin suggested.

“What song?” Noah asked.

I tried to think of a song, but nothing came to mind.  After a few seconds, Brody said, “I don’t know why, but I keep thinking ‘You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’.’”

“Let’s do it,” Martin said, laughing.

Brody walked over to the answering machine and looked at it, trying to figure out how to record a new greeting.  “I think this is it,” he said, pressing a button.  After the machine beeped and clicked, he announced, in a deadpan tone more exaggerated than his usual voice, “Hi.  You’ve reached Erica’s phone.  Leave a message.”  Brody then motioned for us to start singing.  Everyone looked around, not sure what to do; Courtney started laughing after a few seconds.

“You’re supposed to start singing!” Brody said.  He recorded his announcement again, and when it was time to sing, everyone paused again.  “You never close your eyes anymore,” Brody began singing.

“When I kiss your lips,” Martin joined in.  The rest of us all looked at each other, and Courtney started giggling again.  “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’” was an old song, originally released in 1964 by the Righteous Brothers.  Daryl Hall and John Oates famously covered the song in 1980, early in my childhood.  I had heard the song before, but I only knew the chorus; apparently there was a verse before that, which Brody and Martin were singing now.  Brody sighed, stopped the recording, and reminded us all of the lyrics.  I did not know the tune of the verse, but I had a feeling that singing the wrong tune would be just fine for our current purposes.

I suddenly had an idea.  “Before we all start singing, you should play a note on the pitch pipe,” I told Brody.  “Like we’re a real choir or something.”

“Yes!  I like it!”  Brody pressed Record one more time, then announced, “You’ve reached Erica’s phone.  Leave a message.”  Brody then played a note on the pitch pipe, nowhere close to the actual note we started singing.  The five of us began singing the verse to You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’; I sang quietly, since I did not know it well.  But by the chorus, I belted it out along with everyone else.  “You’ve lost that lovin’ feelin’, whoa that lovin’ feelin’, you’ve lost that lovin’ feelin’, now it’s gone, gone, gone, whoa-oh…” we sang.

Brody stopped the recording at that point.  “I think that’s good,” he said.  “Besides, we need to finish up soon, so we can get out of here in plenty of time before Erica gets home.  Let’s go call her from the house phone.”

The five of us stepped carefully through the intricate web of toilet paper and walked down the hallway to the living room, where Mrs. Foster was loading the dishwasher.  Brody picked up the telephone in the refrigerator and called Erica’s number; we could hear Erica’s phone ringing down the hall.  After four rings, we heard ourselves singing, all five of us snickered quietly.  After the beep, we all shouted into the phone, “Happy birthday, Erica!”  Brody hung up.

“I heard you guys singing in there,” Mrs. Foster said.  “She’ll love that.”

“Don’t tell her we changed the greeting,” I said.  “She can discover that for herself.”

“Okay.”  Mrs. Foster chuckled.

“Thanks for letting us do this,” Noah said.

“No problem.  You guys have a good week.  Drive safely.”

“We will,” I replied.


My first class the next morning, Mathematics 197, was not a class at all; I was assisting in a precalculus class at Jeromeville High School, in order to get a feel for whether or not teaching high school was a viable career option for me.  After this class, I walked past Erica’s locker on the way to where my bike was parked, and Erica was usually there.  Today, when she saw me, I waved, and she started laughing.

“I can’t believe what you guys did to my room last night,” she said.  “That was hilarious!”

“Thanks,” I replied, chuckling.  “Happy birthday.”

“What happened?” asked one of Erica’s friends standing next to her.”

“My friends from church decorated my room for my birthday,” Erica explained.  “They filled up all my water bottles!”

“All those water bottles?” the other girl asked.  “That must have taken forever!”

“Someone else did that while I was working on the toilet paper,” I said.

“And those poor stuffed animals!” Erica exclaimed.  “I’m just going to leave them like that for a while.  How did you get the file cabinet in the shower?  That thing is heavy!”

“It took two people.”

“And I guess someone called me right after you left, before I got home.  She left a message, laughing, and she said, who was that singing?  I didn’t know what she was talking about until I called her back, and then I played your greeting.  That was great!  I’m gonna leave it like that for a while.”

“Perfect,” I said, laughing.

“I need to get to class.  But thanks again for all the laughs.”

“You’re welcome,” I said.  “I hope you had a great birthday!  I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“Yes!  Have a good one!”

Being a youth group leader had the obvious benefit of getting to be part of the lives of the children in the group.  But, at least in the case of our group at Jeromeville Covenant Church specifically, the youth leaders all seemed to be close friends with each other.  I had only been part of this group for a few months, but so far they had all welcomed me with metaphorical open arms.

I arrived on the UJ campus a few minutes after I left the high school, still thinking about my different overlapping circles of friends.  On the periphery, I had my friends from the freshman dorm and people I knew from classes.  My friends from church and Jeromeville Christian Fellowship formed a closer circle, with a few people in closer circles.  I felt like the other youth leaders from church were now becoming one of those closer circles.  Erica would be graduating from Jeromeville High this year, but staying in Jeromeville and attending UJ next year.  I was glad she was in my circle, and I was glad I had finally found a specific ministry to be involved with.


Readers: Tell me about a prank you’ve been part of, either as the one pulling the prank or as the victim.

If you’re curious about how all these people are connected, or if you just like following every little detail of the story, I updated the Dramatis Personae. I’ve been way behind on that; there have been a lot of new characters, or characters taking on bigger roles, since the last update. I added entries for Ajeet, Autumn, Brody, Cambria, Courtney, Erica, Evan, James, Lars, and Dr. Samuels, and removed some from characters who are not important parts of the story anymore.

If you like what you read, don’t forget to like this post and follow this blog. Also follow Don’t Let The Days Go By on Facebook and Instagram.

Also remember to check out my other projects:
Greg Out Of Character – a personal blog where I post every once in a while
Song of the Day by DJ GJ-64 – music every day, from many different genres and eras
Cow Chip & Lance – a project by some friends of mine that was the inspiration for “Dog Crap & Vince,” mentioned in this episode. There hasn’t been much new content in a while.


February 21, 1997. A productive day, in more ways than one. (#121)

“So when Jesus said, ‘Before Abraham was born, I am,’ the people he was speaking to would have recognized ‘I am’ as what God said to Moses,” Dr. Hurt explained.  “Where’s Lorraine?  I feel like she would have something to say about this.”

Lorraine Mathews was a religious studies major, specializing in Christianity; I knew her from Jeromeville Christsian Fellowship.   I was not a religious studies major.  I took this Writings of John class, and its prerequisite the previous quarter, because I wanted to learn more about the Bible.  I had gotten involved with JCF sophomore year, through friends, and a year ago this month I made a decision to follow Jesus.  I grew up Catholic, where Bible reading consisted of a couple of paragraphs from three different books read aloud by the priest each Sunday, and I wanted to know more about the Bible.

I did not know why Dr. Hurt thought Lorraine would have something to say about this passage, but I did know exactly why she was not in class today.  In a somewhat uncharacteristic move for me, I spoke up, drawing attention to myself and hoping to get a laugh.  “She’s watching Empire Strikes Back,” I said, loud enough for all 150 students to hear.

“Oooooooh,” a few students said, as others chuckled.

“She skipped class for The Empire Strikes Back?” Dr. Hurt repeated.  “Hasn’t she seen that a bunch of times already?”

“This is the new one!” an unidentified student said.

“There’s a new one?”

“Yeah!  With added scenes.”

“Really.  Well, that’s too bad she missed class today.”

After the fact, I felt a little bad.  Maybe I should not have said that.  Maybe Lorraine would be unhappy with me.  She can be a bit feisty sometimes.  But I said what I said.  I wished that I had been watching The Empire Strikes Back with them.  Lucasfilm, the Star Wars production company, was in the middle of rereleasing the three movies with added and changed scenes to better match director George Lucas’ original vision.  The Star Wars movies were not a large part of my childhood, but my roommate Brian was a huge fan.  Brian had watched the new Star Wars multiple times in the last few weeks.  Today he and his friends were watching the next movie, on the first day it hit theaters.  I had seen Star Wars with my friend Barefoot James a few days ago, but Brian said that I could tag along the second time he saw Empire Strikes Back, and James could too.

After the John class ended, I wandered over to the Memorial Union to find a table and get homework done.  It was sunny but cold, so the indoor tables were crowded, but not as crowded as they would be on a rainy day.  I saw Ajeet Tripathi and Brent Wang from JCF sitting at a table.  Ajeet had a book open but did not appear to be actively reading it. 

“‘Sup, Greg?” Ajeet asked.

“Nothing,” I said.  “Just looking for a place to sit for a couple hours.  May I join you?”

“Sure,” Brent said.  “How many more classes do you have today?”

“None–”

“Why are you still here, dude?” Ajeet interrupted.  “It’s Friday afternoon!”

“I need to go to office hours for geometry.  We have a midterm Monday, and I have a few questions.”

Todd Chevallier, another of Ajeet and Brent’s housemates, arrived at the table and said, “Greg.  How’d you beat me here?”  He was coming from the John class also.

“I don’t know.  I guess I just walk fast?”

“Maybe.  Oh, yeah, I had to pee too,” Todd said.

“Greg, did you say you’re taking geometry?” Brent asked.  “Like we all took in high school?”

“It’s a lot more advanced than that,” I explained.  “In this class, we get a lot into the theory behind it, and how to construct a proof.  We also learned about the undefined terms and the foundations of geometry as a logical system.”  I looked up and saw the blank stares on the others’ faces, a familiar sight when I explained anything I learned as a third-year mathematics major to non-mathematics majors.  “It’s the theory behind what you do in high school geometry.”

“Uhh, sure,” Todd said after a pause.  The conversation went into a lull, and I got out my geometry book to work on homework.  Ajeet started singing, “Da da,” followed by some clicking noises, then “Da da da da da da,” six notes of equal duration with the two notes in the middle a minor third lower than all the other notes.  Ajeet repeated the riff, and Todd joined in; I recognized it from a song I had heard numerous times on the radio.

“What are you guys doing?” Brent asked.

“I’ve had that song stuck in my head all day,” Ajeet explained.

“What song?”

“‘Santa Monica,’ by Everclear.  ‘We could live beside the ocean, leave the fire behind…’”

“I’ve never heard it.”

“Really?  It’s on the radio all the time.”

A while later, I looked up from my studying to see Alaina Penn walking by.  Alaina was involved with University Life, another Christian group on campus, and I knew her through mutual friends.  Alaina saw me and waved, walking toward our table.

“Hey, Greg,” Alaina said.  “Mind if I pull up a chair?  If I can find one?”

“I actually need to get going,” Brent said.  “You can have my seat.”

“Thanks!”

“See ya, Brent,” Ajeet said.

“Have a great day,” I added as Brent said goodbye to us and walked away.

I was about to introduce Alaina to Ajeet and Todd, but I was quite well acquainted with the embarrassment of trying to introduce people who already know each other, so first I asked, “Do you guys know Alaina?”

“No,” Ajeet answered as Todd shook his head in the negative.

“She goes to U-Life.  I met her through mutual friends.”

“Were you at U-Life this week, Greg?” Alaina asked.  “I didn’t see you.”

“No,” I explained.  “I had other plans on Tuesday.”

“That was the night you went to see Star Wars with James, right?” Ajeet asked.

“You ditched us for Star Wars?” Alaina asked.  “It’s okay, I’m just messing with you.”

“Wait,” Todd said.  “Greg?  You go to U-Life too?”

I’ve been once.  Two weeks ago.  Alaina and her friends invited me, and I thought it might be nice to check it out.”

“I went a couple times freshman year.  Their large group meetings were a lot like JCF.”

“I noticed that too.”  I did not tell Todd or Ajeet the complete reason why I wanted to try out U-Life, that I felt frustrated at being on the outside of the cliques within JCF.

“Spring training is starting soon!” Ajeet announced.  “Do you guys follow baseball?”

“No,” Alaina answered.

“I used to,” I replied.  “I went to maybe three or four Bay City Titans games every year with my family.  I moved out right when the players went on strike, and I never got back into it.”

“Bummer,  But at least you like the right team,” Ajeet said.  “Baseball is of God.”

“Whoa,” Todd replied.  “Blasphemy?  ‘Baseball is a god?’”

“I said baseball is of God, not a God.  Baseball is God’s gift to us.”

A while later, I heard a new voice say, “Hey, guys.”  Ben Lawton and Whitney Felton, two of Alaina’s friends from U-Life, approached.  “Mind if we join you?”

“Go for it,” I said.  The table next to us was now empty, and I moved aside so that they could push the empty table next to us and make more room.  Whitney introduced herself to Ajeet and Todd; Ben had met them before, since he occasionally attended JCF also.  It was Ben who had first introduced me to Alaina.

“What are you up to the rest of the day?” Ben asked me a bit later.

“I’m going to a professor’s office hours.  What about you?”

“I have a class at 3.”

“A class Friday at 3,” Todd repeated.  “That’s brutal.  It’s bad enough that Ajeet and I have class Friday at 2.”

“We should probably get going for that,” Ajeet added.  “It was nice meeting you guys.  Greg, I’ll see you tonight at JCF?”

“Yeah,” I said.  “Have a good one.”

I continued working on homework.  A few minutes after Ajeet and Todd left, Alaina said, “So Whitney and I had this great idea the other day.  We’re gonna throw a coffee house party.  We’ll make all kinds of special coffee drinks, and we’ll decorate the house like a coffee shop.”

“And we’ll have poetry readings, and we’re hoping someone will play live music for part of the night,” Whitney added.  “And we’ll make art to put on the wall.”

“That’s a great idea,” Ben said.  “When is this?”

“Oh, not any time soon.  We’re too busy this quarter.  We’re thinking maybe April.”

“Sounds like fun!”

The three of them started discussing who they could ask to play music and make artwork, naming people I did not know.  At one point, Alaina asked, “Greg, what do you think?”

“Oh,” I said, unaware that I was included in this discussion since it seemed to revolve around U-Life people.  “That sounds like a lot of fun!  Keep me posted.”  I left out the detail that I did not like coffee; it still sounded like fun even without coffee.

At around quarter to three, I stood up and said, “I should probably get going.”

“Me too,” Ben replied.

“You know what’s really funny?” I added.  “When I sat down here two hours ago, it was all JCF people at this table.  And the table gradually transitioned into U-Life people.”

“That is funny!” Alaina said.  “Greg, you just have a lot of friends.”

“I guess I do.  Have a good weekend, you guys!”

“Thanks!” Whitney replied.  “You too!”


For the last year, I would have said that Dr. Thomas was my favorite mathematics professor, but now it was a toss-up between her and Dr. Samuels.  Dr. Samuels was a much better teacher than most of the professors I had.  His was the only math class I ever took that did not feel like just a lecture.  He called on students at random, like a high school teacher might, and he would pause class a few times each hour and tell us to turn to our neighbors and summarize what we just learned.  This helped, especially on days when I could not stay awake.

Four other students came to Dr. Samuels’ office hours that day; apparently I was not the only one who needed refreshing on these topics.  From this class, I was beginning to see geometry in a new light.  My high school geometry textbook had said that every logical system had to begin with undefined terms, and that “point,” “line,” and “plane” were undefined terms in Euclidean geometry.  Why were they undefined, I thought?  It seemed lazy.  One could at least describe the concepts of points, lines, and planes using English, right?

After Dr. Samuels’ class, the concept of undefined terms made more sense.  Geometry begins with basic postulates, such as that two points determine a line.  The terms are undefined because these assumptions determine all the properties that a geometer would need to know about points and lines.  Furthermore, one could construct a geometric system where “point” and “line” were understood to mean something else, and all of the theorems would still apply in that system, since they were based on those basic assumptions.  If “point” were understood to mean what would normally be called a line, and “line” were understood to mean what would normally be called a point, some of the basic postulates would still be true.  Two lines, in the real world sense, determine one point.  This thought blew my mind.

After Dr. Samuels answered my question, he said, “By the way, Greg, can you stick around for a while?  I want to ask you something after we’re done here.”

“Sure,” I said.  “I was going to listen to everyone else’s questions anyway.”  I felt a little nervous over the next twenty minutes, wondering what Dr. Samuels wanted to talk to me about.  Was I in trouble?  I did my best to concentrate on what my classmates were asking.

After the last person left Dr. Samuels’ office, he said, “So, Greg.  What are your plans for after graduation?  I always ask this of strong students like you.”

“I’m not really sure,” I replied sheepishly.  If Dr. Samuels thought I was a strong student, I should have a better answer than that.  “I’ve been trying to figure that out.  I went to the Math Club’s career fair, and nothing really stood out to me.  Dr. Thomas told me about REU programs, so I’m thinking about that for this summer, to get a sense of what grad school would be like.”

“Have you ever considered being a teacher?  I’ve done some work with secondary education, and I’ve heard the way you explain things to others in class.”

Of all the reasons Dr. Samuels might have wanted to talk to me individually, this was not what I was expecting.  For years, I had said that I would never be a teacher, because of the politics involved in public schools.  Many of my high school teachers were active and outspoken politically, with views that I disagreed with.  I had always assumed that I would stay in school forever and become a mathematician, but my disillusionment with the career fair had left my future plans undecided.

“I don’t know,” I said.  “I didn’t think much about teaching at first, but everything feels up in the air now.  And I work as a tutor at the Learning Skills Center, and I do enjoy that.”

“If you ever want to give it a try, you can get two units on your transcript as Math 197.  You’ll help out in a classroom at Jeromeville High for the quarter, and at the end you’ll write a short paper about what you did and what you learned.  If you’re trying to figure out your career plans, it would be a great way to immerse yourself in the world of teaching.”

“Yeah,” I said.  “It sounds like it.  When do I have to let you know by?”

“Sometime next week should be good.  Think about it.”

“I will.  Thanks for letting me know about this.”

“You’re welcome.  This state is always looking for good teachers, especially ones with strong mathematics backgrounds.”

“Yeah.”

I left Dr. Samuels’s office and walked toward the bus stop.  This was a new wrinkle in the fabric of my life.  Could I be a teacher?  I tried to picture myself in a classroom with thirty sullen teenagers who called me Mr. Dennison.  I was sure it would be challenging, but it could be fun and enjoyable as well.  I enjoyed my tutoring job, I always enjoyed explaining math to people, and I had been spending a lot of time around younger people through volunteering with the youth group at church.

“Greg!” an enthusiastic female voice shouted as I approached the bus stop.  I saw Yesenia Fonseca, one of the first students I ever had as a tutor, waving at me.  “What’s up?”

“Just thinking,” I said.  “My professor just asked me if I had ever considered being a teacher.  I’d never really pictured myself as a teacher.”

“You’d totally be a great teacher!” Yesenia replied.  “I had another tutor last spring quarter, and she wasn’t good at explaining at all, like you were.”

“He said I could get units for helping in a classroom at Jeromeville High.  I’m thinking I might do it.”

“You should!”

Yesenia’s bus arrived just seconds before mine; we said goodbye and headed home.  Shawn, one of my roommates, was studying to be a math teacher.  He was doing his student teaching at Laguna Ciervo High School, across the Drawbridge in a suburban neighborhood just outside of Capital City.  When I got home, I told Shawn about what Dr. Samuels had said.

“You should go for it,” Shawn said.  “I think you’d be a good teacher.  We definitely need good teachers.  The teacher I’m working with is terrible.”

“Oh yeah?”

“He’s just mean.  He keeps telling kids, ‘It’s my way or the highway.’  I mean, I get you have to establish authority, but there’s got to be a better way.”

“Yeah.”

“I don’t see you like that.  I think you should try it.”

All weekend, I could not get this off my mind.  This had been a productive day, in more ways than one.  I had gotten a lot of work done sitting in the Memorial Union.  I had learned of an upcoming party at Alaina and Whitney’s house, another connection with a new group of friends.  And Dr. Samuels had given me something to think about regarding the future.  Me, Mr. Dennison, teaching high school kids about algebra and geometry.

Sure, Shawn was not having the best experience with student teaching.  But I was not Shawn.  Hopefully I would have a better experience.  Yesenia had told me that I would make a good teacher, and as a former tutee, she would know.  I would tell Dr. Samuels on Monday that I wanted to help out at Jeromeville High; the worst that could happen was that I would discover that I would not like it.  I would still get two units for it.  It was an option to explore, and that was what I needed right now.


Author’s note: Who was your favorite teacher, and why?


Late September, 1996. Outreach Camp and the first JCF meeting of the year. (#101)

“Welcome, Greg!” Janet McAllen said.  She and her husband Dave, the full-time paid staff who led Jeromeville Christian Fellowship, sat at a folding table overlooking the dirt parking lot and the entrance to Pine Mountain Christian Conference Center.  “You’re in Cabin 4.  You can go put your stuff away there.  Dinner is at six o’clock, and we’ll be meeting after that.  Until then, we’re pretty much just hanging out.”

“Cool.”

“How was your summer?”  Dave asked.

“It was good.  I took a class first session, Intro to Software.  I got an A.”

“Good job!” Janet said.  She pointed out the general direction of the cafeteria, meeting room, and cabins, and I headed toward Cabin 4, carrying my sleeping bag, pillow, and suitcase.  The suitcase was not really a suitcase, since it had soft sides, and it was not really mine, since it had my grandfather’s initials embroidered on it.  I had taken it with me two years ago when I first moved into my dorm as a freshman, since I did not have a suitcase, and I still had it.

The cabin held six campers in three bunk beds attached to the wall.  I was six feet, four inches tall, and the beds looked a little short for me.  I would not fit in the lower bunk at all, because the short ends of the bunks were a wall of solid wood instead of a wood or metal frame, so that my feet would press against the inside of this wall instead of dangle over.  Two of the top bunks already had people’s things on them, so I climbed to the last remaining top bunk.  My feet hung over the end a little, but if I turned at a slight diagonal, I would at least be a little bit more comfortable.

I went outside and found Brent Wang getting people together for a pick-up game of Ultimate Frisbee.  “How’ve you been?” I asked Brent.

“Great,” he said.  “I’m playing keyboard on the worship team this year.  After this game we’re gonna go practice.”

“That’s cool,” I said.  “I’m just glad to be back.”

I spent the next hour running up and down the field, catching and passing the flying disc, as I saw more and more of my friends from last year arriving, mostly coming from Jeromeville in organized carpools.  Pine Mountain Christian Conference Center was about a two hour car trip from Jeromeville, northeast into the mountains.  I had never been to this part of the state before.  The parking lot, field, and basketball court were spread out over a meadow, with the meeting room, cafeteria, and cabins set against the foot of the mountains that surrounded the grounds on three sides.  Beyond the parking lot, the road on which we drove in sloped downward.  The pines that covered the mountains gave the area a distinct scent not present down in the Valley.

I was dripping sweat after we finished playing Ultimate Frisbee.  I walked around and spent about another hour catching up with people, watching others play Ultimate Frisbee, table tennis, and basketball.  At dinner time, I wandered toward the cafeteria.  The inside of the building reminded me a bit of the dining hall at the dorm from two years ago, but with fewer options.  As I walked around looking for a place to sit, I heard a familiar voice say, “Greg!  How are you?  Want to sit here?”

Melinda Schmidt sat at a table with two other senior girls, Amelia Dye and Lillian Corey. “Sure,” I said, sitting at the empty seat.  “How was your summer?”

“It was pretty good!  How was yours?”

“I was in Jeromeville taking a class.  Where were you this summer again?”

“I was home.  In Blue Oaks.  You drove through it on the way here.”

“No.  I thought you were going on a mission trip somewhere.”

“Oh… I was going to, but I had to cancel it because of a family emergency.”

“I’m sorry.”  That phrase “family emergency” always felt awkward to me; I never knew whether or not it was okay to ask for more details about what happened.

“It’s okay.  I’ll have lots of time to look at mission trips for next year,” Melinda continued.

“Yeah.  That’s good.”

“Have you ever been on a mission trip?”

“I haven’t.  I’m pretty new to all this stuff.  But I’m learning more about what kind of things happen on mission trips.  One thing I was hoping to find this week is what role God has for me in the group this year.”

“That’s good.  Just keep seeking God.”

As the afternoon continued on into the evening, I kept my eye out for Haley Channing to arrive.  I had not seen her in over three months now, and I was hoping that being together on a retreat for five whole days would give us time to talk and hang out.  Maybe, if things went well, I could tell her how I felt about her.  I had assumed she would be here, since she was friends with all the people who were in JCF’s inner social circles, but I never knew for sure whether or not she would.  I had gotten one letter from her during the summer, and she never mentioned Outreach Camp at all.  By the end of dinner, I had still not seen Haley, and I began to resign myself to the fact that she was not coming, and that I would have to wait until sometime next week to see her again.


We studied Paul’s letter to the Philippians for our Bible studies at Outreach Camp.  We did something called a manuscript study, where we were each given a copy of the text of Philippians without chapter or verse numbers.  We were supposed to look at the text without those distractions, so we could find connections between different parts of the text and mark them in different colors.  I did not quite understand what I was looking for, and no one could give me a clear answer.  As the week went on, my manuscript looked more and more like the bulletin board of a conspiracy theorist connecting seemingly unrelated details.

After the first Bible study time, we got into groups for prayer requests.  Amelia was in my group, along with Liz Williams, a junior like me who had lived right down the hall from me freshman year.  Also in my group were Eddie Baker, a junior who had been there for me on a particularly rough night, and two sophomores named Jennifer Chong and Todd Chevallier.

“I’ve had to make a lot of difficult decisions lately,” Liz began.  “I want to make sure that I am living entirely for God, because I’ve been letting too much get in the way.”  Liz seemed to be struggling to get her words out.  Finally, she continued, “Ramon and I broke up.”

The next few seconds of silence among those in our group said more than words ever could.  For almost two years, since the first quarter of freshman year, Liz and Ramon had been the strong Christian couple whom everyone liked.  They had also been among the first friends I made at the University of Jeromeville.  “Pray that we will both use this time apart to seek God wholly, and to know what he has for us, whether we end up together or apart in the end,” Liz continued.

“Any other prayer requests?” Amelia asked.

“I have one,” I said, a little hesitant to follow Liz’s major announcement.  “Pray that God will show me what my role is within JCF.  Now that I’ve been going here for a year, I want to know how I can get involved.”

“That’s a good one.  We’ll pray for that.”

As the six of us prayed, we could hear other groups finishing and the worship band setting up.  After prayer, we all spent some time singing before concluding for the night.  I looked around, unsure of what would happen now; was everyone supposed to go to bed, or were people going to stay up hanging out and talking for a while?  I sat watching others, trying to figure out what to do.  After a few minutes, Tabitha Sasaki spotted me across the room while she and the rest of the worship band were putting away their instruments.  She came over toward me and said, “Hey, Greg.  Can I ask you something?”

“Sure,” I replied.

“That big red Bronco in the parking lot, that’s yours, right?”

Uh-oh.  Last week, Brian made me the driver for our toilet-papering adventure specifically because no one in the house we hit would know my car, so that we could park outside and listen for their reaction.  Did I just get caught?  Was Tabitha there that night, and I did not realize it?  “Yes,” I said uneasily.

“Lars and Brent and Scott and I were just talking about how the worship team needs a roadie, someone to help us load and unload all our instruments and equipment each week.  We were trying to think of someone who has, like, a big truck or something like that, and I thought of you.  I thought you had a Bronco.  Would you be interested in doing that for us this year?”

I was relieved that Tabitha’s conversation with me had nothing to do with the toilet-papering incident, but I saw that something else was happening here too.  “Yes!” I replied.  “That sounds perfect!  Just earlier tonight, in our small group, I was praying that God would find a specific way for me to get involved.  This is an answer to prayer.”

“Yay!  I know, we were praying about it too, and I just thought of you.  That’s totally a God thing.”

“So what exactly would I have to do?”

“We practice at Lars’ house on J Street, so just come there every Friday an hour before large group starts, and help us load everything.  Then help us unload once we get to campus.  And do the same thing afterward.”

“Sounds good,” I said.  Having to unload afterward meant that I might be a little late if anyone did anything social, but that was no problem as long as I knew what was going on.  This was exactly what I had been praying for.  My mom always said that God works in mysterious ways, and this was one of them.


The rest of the week was more of the same; lots of time hanging out at this beautiful retreat center, playing Ultimate Frisbee and table tennis, sitting among the pines reading Scripture, and singing songs of praise and worship.  One day, I was sitting alone on a bench reading the Bible, and I spotted Ramon doing the same on a bench about a hundred feet away.  I thought about him having broken up with Liz, and about Haley not being here at all, and I realized that maybe Haley’s absence was God’s work too.  Maybe God wanted me to really focus on him this week, and he knew that having Haley here would be too much of a distraction for me.  I smiled and thanked God silently.

For the Wednesday evening session, we split into groups that each had a specific focus for the first week of school.  Small group Bible study leaders met to plan their outreach and their studies for the first quarter.  Another group met to discuss having a table in the Quad to hand out flyers and get contact information from interested students.  Another group made plans to show up around the dorms on Sunday and offer to help students move in.

My new position as the roadie did not fit neatly into any of these groups.  I walked around the room, trying to figure out which group to join.  Brian Burr, my roommate who had graduated last year and was now on staff with JCF, saw me and motioned for me to come over.  Their group also included Tabitha, Liz, Todd, Jennifer Chong, and Scott Madison, who was the worship team drummer and Amelia’s boyfriend.  “Which group is this?” I asked.

“We’re planning a skit for the first large group,” Brian said.

“Yeah,” Scott added.  “I’m gonna be Scooby-Doo.”

“This is gonna be funny,” I said.  “What’s the skit going to be about?”

“So far, the Scooby-Doo gang is helping freshmen move in, and one girl’s dorm room is haunted.  And we’ll chase the ghost around, just like in a Scooby-Doo cartoon, and then take off the ghost’s mask at the end.”

“That’s a great idea!  What’s the spiritual lesson in this?”

“There isn’t one,” Tabitha said.  “It’s just for fun.”

“Sounds good, I said.

We spent the next hour, as well as some time after the Thursday evening session, outlining the plot of our skit.  We got Lars Ashford, a senior who played in the worship team, to be the bad guy in our skit.  A few days after we all got back to Jeromeville, we all met at Scott’s apartment one night to write the script and rehearse.  We watched old Scooby-Doo cartoons on a rented VHS tape for about an hour, to help us perfect the mannerisms of our characters.  We painted cardboard props, including the Mystery Machine van.  The others tried on their costumes, which they had assembled from thrift store and costume shop products.

“So, the funniest thing happened at the costume shop,” Liz said.  “I told the guy I was looking for orange hair dye.  But I said, not like real hair color, like a cartoon orange.  That was all I said.  And he asked the other guy working there, ‘Do we have any orange hair dye, like Daphne from Scooby-Doo?’”

“That’s hilarious!” I said.

“I know!  I said, that’s exactly what I’m looking for!”

The first JCF meeting was on the first Friday night after classes started, a week after we got home from Outreach Camp.  The room was full of new freshmen and transfer students from community colleges, as well as returning students from last year.  After the opening song, Dave McAllen introduced himself and made announcements; then it was time for our skit.

I stood at the front of the room, wearing a large oversized button on my shirt that said ASK ME.  Jennifer Chong walked up to me.  “Hi,” she said.  “Is… is this Baxter Hall?”

“Yes,” I said.  “I’m an RA here in the building.  Are you one of my residents?”

“Yeah.  I’m Jennifer.  I’m in room 319.”

“Great!  My name is Greg.  Just come find me if you need help with anything.”

“I will!”

I sat down in the front row after this; that opening scene was my entire role in the skit.  The rest of the group walked in from the back of the room carrying the Mystery Machine: Brian as Shaggy in a green shirt with unkempt hair, Liz as Daphne with dyed orange hair, Todd as Fred with a white shirt and scarf, Tabitha as Velma in a turtleneck, and Scott as Scooby wearing a hideous brown thrift store suit and fake dog ears.  The audience cheered wildly.

“Zoinks!” Brian said to Jennifer.  “We’re, like, here to help you move!”  The audience laughed at Brian’s impersonation of Shaggy.

“Hi,” Liz said.  “I’m Daphne.  What’s your name?”

“Jennifer,” Jennifer said.

“What building and room are you in?” Todd asked.

“319 Baxter.”

All four of the other human characters gasped, and said in unison, “319 Baxter?”

“Ruh-roh!” Scott added.

“Like, that’s the room that’s haunted by the ghost of Alexander Baxter!” Brian exclaimed.

“And the key to room 319 also opens a treasure chest that Mr. Baxter hid in the basement!” Tabitha said.  In real life, Baxter Hall had no basement.

“G-g-g-ghost?” Jennifer said, trembling.

“I’m sure there’s nothing to worry about,” Todd said.  “Come on.  Everyone grab a box, and let’s carry this stuff upstairs.”

As everyone walked offstage, Lars stood in a corner, wearing a trench coat.  His face was covered with a ghost mask made from a paper plate with eye holes.  Jennifer held her room key, which Lars snuck up and stole before returning to his hiding place.  “Let’s unlock the room so we can get in,” Jennifer said.  “Huh?  Where’s the key?  I just had it.”

“Zoinks!” Brian shouted, pointing at Lars.  “Ghost!”

“Raaaarrr!” Lars screamed, jumping out of his corner.  Everyone started running in place for a few seconds, then they simultaneously took off in the same direction, just as they did in old cartoons.  Lars chased the others, also running in place first.

Brian, Scott, Liz, Tabitha, and Todd ran back to the center of the stage.  “W-w-where’s the ghost?” Tabitha asked.

“Let’s split up,” Todd suggested.  “Shaggy and Scooby, you go that way, and the rest of us will go this way.”  The group walked off stage in opposite directions.

Lars picked up a cardboard soda machine prop and hid behind it.  Brian and Scott walked by.  “Like, look, Scoob!  Soda!” Brian said.  Scott made dog noises in return.  Brian put a coin in the soda machine, and Lars handed Brian a soda from behind the machine, his hand clearly visible.  “Like, thanks!” Brian said.  The audience laughed.

“You’re welcome,” Lars growled from behind the soda machine.  Brian and Scott looked at each other, then back at the soda machine.  Lars tossed the soda machine aside and screamed, “Raaaaarrrr!”  Brian and Scott ran away.

Next, Todd, Tabitha, and Liz walked in from the other side of the stage.  Lars stood right in their way, unnoticed by them.  “Have any of you seen anything strange?” Tabitha asked as she walked with her head turned, facing the others.  She bumped into Lars.  All of them screamed and began chasing each other back and forth across the stage.

Eventually, all of the mystery-solving friends and Jennifer came back to the front of the room, with Lars across the room from them, not seeing them.  “Okay, Scooby,” Todd said, holding a woman’s dress.  “Put this on and seduce the ghost.”  The audience cheered and whooped at this suggestion.  I remembered that our script said “distract,” not “seduce,” and I hoped that Todd’s Freudian slip would not get us in trouble, since we were supposed to be a Christian group promoting Biblical values.  (No one ever said anything.)

“Ruh-ruh,” Scott replied, shaking his head.

“Like, would you do it for a Scooby Snack?” Brian asked, holding a box of crackers.  The audience cheered at yet another silly Scooby-Doo reference.

“Mmm!” Scott said, eating a cracker.  He put on the dress, prompting another round of cheering from the audience, and walked toward Lars, batting his eyelashes.  “Roh, Rister Raxter,” Scott said, combining the usual extra Rs of the Scooby-Doo voice with an exaggerated high falsetto.  Lars turned around to look at Scott, distracted, as Todd, Liz, and Tabitha put a rope around Lars and tied him up.

“Let’s see who you really are,” Tabitha said, pulling Lars’ mask off.

“It’s, like, my history professor!” Brian gasped.

“And I would have gotten away with it if it weren’t for you meddlin’ kids!” Lars said.  The audience cheered.

“That wraps up that mystery,” Todd said to Jennifer.  “Now we can go back to helping you move in.”

“Thanks, guys,” Jennifer replied.  “I just hope I don’t have any classes in haunted classrooms!”  All of the actors made fake exaggerating laughing noises, and the audience cheered.

Tabitha had told me there was no particular spiritual illustration in our skit.  Not every act of Christian service or ministry has to have a direct teachable illustration.  This silly performance brought a moment of much-needed levity into the stressful lives of a room full of university students beginning a new academic year.

Even fun moments like this meant solely to create a welcoming environment can have far-reaching spiritual consequences.  A freshman named Seth Huang sat in the audience that night.  Seth would give his testimony at JCF large group a few years later; he said that he attended a number of different Christian campus groups the first couple weeks of school, but the reason he chose to get involved with JCF was because of the Scooby-Doo skit.  The people listening to his testimony laughed at that, and I felt honored to have been part of something that made a difference to him.  Seth went on to spend about a decade after graduation in full-time ministry at two other schools in the area, leading chapters of the same campus ministry organization that ran JCF.  Hundreds of students received spiritual guidance from Seth, all because some of us decided to act silly and perform a Scooby-Doo skit.  God certainly does work in mysterious ways.

Greg (left) and Brian at Outreach Camp, September 1996

Author’s note: For my readers in other countries, six feet, four inches equals 1.93 meters.

Scooby-Doo and all associated properties are trademarks of Hanna-Barbera, who was not involved in the production of this work.

July 27-29, 1996. Questioning my spiritual home. (#94)

The Dennison family got cable television in 1984.  I was in second grade, and we now got thirty channels with very clear pictures. This was a vast improvement over the six channels we got before, two of which were full of static and one of which was in Spanish.  I grew up watching MTV in the 1980s, and my mother absorbed knowledge of much of the popular music of that day.  However, my mother also had the habit of not paying close attention to lyrics and misunderstanding the meanings of songs.  To her, for example, “She Bop” by Cyndi Lauper was about dancing, rather than masturbation, and “Born in the USA” by Bruce Springsteen was a proud patriotic anthem, not a criticism of the United States government’s past involvement in Vietnam and subsequent neglect of veterans.

In 1996, after getting involved with Jeromeville Christian Fellowship and making new friends there, I discovered the new world of Christian rock music.  Bands like DC Talk and Jars of Clay filled two of the three discs on my CD changer, and I copied both albums to cassettes to listen to in the car.  A few of those Christian rock hits were getting played on mainstream secular radio stations, and in an attempt to connect with me, Mom would tell me whenever she heard one of these songs.  Mom would also tell me whenever she heard some other song that had a lyric that sounded religious and ask if that song was by one of my Christian bands, despite the fact that many of these words had meanings in ordinary English and were used by non-Christian musicians as well.  No, Mom, “Salvation” by the Cranberries is not Christian music.

My family had recently set up Internet access, and Mom had made the humorous email name “Peg Not Bundy” for herself, in reference to Peg Bundy, the wife from TV’s Married With Children, and the fact that her name was Peggy also.  I opened an email from Peg Not Bundy and read it.


From: peg_notbundy@aolnet.com
To: “Gregory J. Dennison” <gjdennison@jeromeville.edu>
Date: Sat, 27 Jul 1996 09:33 -0700
Subject: Re: hi

I finally have a few minutes to sit and write.  It has been such a busy week!  I’ve had a lot of work to do.  Today Mark has a baseball game, so I have to take him to that, then Cody is coming over afterward p[bdfg6t7sdvg78ysvd (Davey says hi).


Davey was a cat, and that gibberish meant that he climbed on the keyboard as Mom was typing.  This was not the first time this had happened, but it always made me smile when I read that in Mom’s emails.  I continued reading.


I heard a song on the radio today that I kind of like.  The chorus said, “Tell me all your thoughts on God.”  Do you know that song?  Is that one of your Christian bands?  How is your class going?  One more week, right?  Talk to you later.  Love, Mom


I replied to the email and told Mom that the song was “Counting Blue Cars” by Dishwalla, and it was definitely not Christian music.  If Mom had listened to the next line, she would know that the song actually said, “Tell me all your thoughts on God, ‘cause I’d really like to meet her.”  A real Christian band would not be referring to God as “her”; this would be extremely unpopular with listeners of mainstream Christian music, although the idea was not unheard of among liberal feminists in the Church.

Liberal feminists in the Church were not hard to find in a university town like Jeromeville.  I attended Mass at the Jeromeville Newman Center, and one time last year, before I was part of the choir, I remember we sang a familiar song called “On Eagle’s Wings.”  Since its publication in 1979, this had been a popular song for Catholic Masses; I had heard and sung it many times growing up at Our Lady of Peace Church.  The line at the end of the chorus said “and hold you in the palm of his hand,” with God doing the holding, but the first time I heard it at Newman, it sounded like they were saying something a little different, almost like “palm of her hand.”  Some time later, when I got to church, I looked at the sign that had the numbers of the day’s songs in the songbook, and next to the number for On Eagle’s Wings was a female ♀ symbol.  Just like the time before, the choir sang female pronouns for God.  I noticed as the year went on that they would occasionally change other lyrics to refer to God in the feminine. I was a little surprised at this, because in my experience, the radical feminists and hippies who used female pronouns for God were not Catholic.



The day after Mom asked about Counting Blue Cars, I drove myself to church.  I usually carpooled with Heather Escamilla, who lived in the same apartment complex as me, but she had blown off church to spend the weekend at the Great Blue Lake with her boyfriend.  I heard Counting Blue Cars on the way to church and promptly changed the station.  Hearing that song reminded me that we were singing On Eagle’s Wings with feminine pronouns today, and this still made me uncomfortable.  God did not have a gender or biological sex in the way that humans understand the concept, but making a point of using feminine pronouns in church, going against centuries of church tradition, just seemed arrogant to me.  The Bible was the Word of God, and if masculine pronouns were good enough for those who wrote it, why are they suddenly not good enough for Jeromevillians in 1996?  Changing God’s gender felt like a slippery slope toward changing God’s teachings.

“Hey, Greg,” Claire, the unofficial leader of the choir, said as I approached the other choir members.  “How are you?”

“Doing well.  One more week of class.”

“Nice!  Are you taking a class second session?”

“No.  I’m just going to hang out.  And I’m moving at the start of September.”

“Me too.  I’m getting an apartment with Sabrina and one other girl we know.  I’m going to have my own room for the first time!  I’m not going to need my bed loft!  Do you know anyone who wants to buy a bed loft?”

“Actually,” I said, “I might be interested.  I’m going to be sharing a room.  How much?”

“I was thinking fifty dollars.  We can talk about it later.  I’ll let you know.”

“Sounds good!”

I walked to my usual music stand, next to Ellen Stark.  “Hi,” I said.  “How are you?”

“Good!  We’re taking a family vacation this week, up to Portland to visit relatives.  I’m excited about that!”

“Fun!  I have my final exam on Thursday.”

“Good luck!  I’m sure you’ll do fine.”

“When do you go back to California?”

“Middle of September.  So I’ll still be here for a while.”

“Good,” I said.

Claire whispered at all of us to be quiet as Father Bill and Sister Mary Rose walked up to begin Mass.  On Eagle’s Wings was the offertory song, sung about halfway through while the offering plates were being passed.  I had sung it with feminine pronouns before, because that was just the way things were done at the Jeromeville Newman Center, but today, with Counting Blue Cars still on my mind, it felt especially wrong.

“And hmm will raise you up on eagle’s wings,” I sang, purposely making the pronoun unintelligible.  “And hold you in the palm… of mmm hand.”  I looked at Ellen next to me to see if she noticed; she was looking straight forward, not at me.  Probably not.

After Communion, as Father Bill and others were making announcements, I noticed Lisa, another singer from our choir who sang at the early service during the school year, coming out of the back room with Sister Mary Rose.  Lisa walked back to her music stand.  I wondered what she was doing; she had been singing with us just a few minutes ago, and I did not notice her step away.  We sang the final song, and after Father Bill dismissed the congregation, we began putting our sheet music and stands away.  Lisa accidentally knocked over her stand, then almost tripped over it trying to pick up the scattered sheet music.

“Sorry!” Lisa laughed.  “There was a lot of leftover wine today.”

“What?” I asked, certain that I had misheard.

“After Communion, Sister Mary Rose and I were finishing the bread and wine,” Lisa explained.

“You have to eat and drink the rest of it?” Matt Jones asked.

“Yeah,” Lisa explained.  “You can’t just throw it away, it’s the Body and Blood of Christ!”

“I guess I never really thought about that,” Matt said.

“I know sometimes I need to get a little tipsy from the wine to finish the last song,” Lisa said, laughing.  Matt and Claire laughed with her, while I just stood, shocked at this blasphemy I was hearing.  I had recently read in First Corinthians where Paul wrote that “whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord.”  My understanding was that, unlike many other Christians, Catholics believe that the bread and wine actually become the body and blood of Christ, while retaining the appearance and taste of bread and wine.  This is why, as Lisa said, it could not just be thrown away.

Joking about getting drunk off of the blood of Christ had no place in a house of worship.  At this point, though, I did not expect much reverence from a congregation that prioritized being good feminists and calling God She over church teaching.  I immediately walked over to Sister Mary Rose.

“Hi, Greg,” Sister Mary Rose said.  “How are you?”

“Can I talk to you sometime?” I asked.  “I have some things I’ve been thinking about.”

“Sure.  What’s your schedule like this week?”

“I have class Tuesday and Thursday from 12 to 2, and Wednesday from 10 to 2.  I’m free tomorrow.”

“How about you just come by here tomorrow afternoon?  Around one o’clock, maybe?”

“That sounds good.  I’ll see you then.”

“Yes.  See you tomorrow.”


I decided to ride my bike to the Newman Center the next afternoon to talk to Sister Mary Rose, instead of driving.  That way I could continue on a recreational bike ride afterward.  The ride took about ten minutes, but it was hot enough that I was starting to sweat when I arrived.  I locked my bike and walked into the church office, slowly and carefully.

“Hi, Greg!” Sister Mary Rose said.  “Take a seat.”  I sat in a chair across from her at her desk, trying to get comfortable, as she asked, “So what’s going on?”

I took a deep breath, and then another one, trying to make the words come out right.  “When we sing songs like ‘On Eagle’s Wings’ with the feminine pronouns, that isn’t right to me.  It’s like you’re putting politics above church teaching and the Word of God.”

“Well,” Sister Mary Rose replied, “how do you think you would feel if you were a woman?”

I paused.  It seemed like she was setting me up to make me feel guilty for being a white male, a standard tactic used by liberals to make conservatives look bad.  I did not feel guilty for being who I was, but I also did not want to start an argument or say anything that Sister Mary Rose would find offensive.  “I don’t know,” I replied.  “I would probably notice that God is usually spoken of as if he were male, but I would like to think that I would submit to Scripture and Church teaching on the subject.”

“Well, God is not a man.  God has both male and female attributes.”

“I agree.”

“Then why is this a problem for you?”

“It just feels…” I shifted my position in my seat.  “Kind of arrogant, like you know better than hundreds of years of Church teaching, and the people who wrote the Bible.”

“Church teaching has changed.  And so has language.  It was normal at one time to use a word like ‘mankind’ to mean all men and women, but today we would say ‘humankind.’”

I nodded, but inwardly cringed.  I thought “humankind” was kind of a dumb word, when “mankind” did just as well with fewer letters and syllables.  It had only been twenty-seven years since Neil Armstrong’s famous use of the word “mankind,” and the language had already changed?  I remember being home at Christmas and noticing that this year’s songbook at Our Lady of Peace had replaced the word “mankind” in one of the later verses of “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” with “humankind,” breaking the rhythm by adding an extra syllable.  Forcibly changing the language like that felt too much like George Orwell’s 1984 to me.

However, Sister Mary Rose brought up an important point: I was not a woman.  I did not know how it felt to live in a culture that historically treated women as second-class citizens, and while women had made a great deal of progress toward equality, old habits and scars remained at times.

“But,” I asked, “isn’t church teaching supposed to be based on the Bible?  And the word of God doesn’t change.”

“The word of God doesn’t change,” Sister Mary Rose reiterated.  “The Church will never do anything that goes against the Ten Commandments, or the teachings of Jesus.  And changing the language we use doesn’t go against any of that.  You agreed that God has male and female attributes.  So using male and female language to refer to God does not go against any teaching.”

I took a deep breath and said, “I don’t know.”

“Pray about it.  Pray that God will give you peace about this.”

“I just don’t know if I belong here anymore.”

“What do you mean?  Where?”

“The Newman Center.  I’ve been getting involved with Jeromeville Christian Fellowship, they are nondenominational, but the more I learn about the Bible, I see a lot of people here who don’t really seem to take their faith seriously.”  I shifted in my seat again, debating telling her about Lisa getting tipsy from the Communion wine; I decided not to.

“Greg, no one is perfect.  Everyone sins.  That is why we have the Sacrament of Reconciliation.  And if you are concerned about them, you can be a good example and take your faith seriously, and pray for them.”

I nodded.  “That makes sense,” I said.

“You’ve been a part of Newman for, how long?  Two years now?  I would hate for you to feel like this isn’t your spiritual home anymore.”

“Yeah.”

“May I pray for you?”

“Sure.”

Sister Mary Rose folded her hands and looked down, and I did the same.  “O Loving Parent, I pray for your blessing on Greg.  I thank you for bringing him to the Newman Center to be a part of our community.  I thank you for blessing us with his voice on Sunday mornings.  I pray that you will give him peace about these things that have been on his mind, and that he will listen for your guidance.”  She continued, saying the Hail Mary prayer, then lifted her head and opened her eyes.

“Thank you,” I said.

“Just find a quiet place and listen to God.”

“I’ve been trying to do that.”

“Good!  Keep doing that.”  We made small talk for a few minutes, and I left, feeling a little bit better, but still unsure of what to think of all this.


Later that night, when I got home from my bike ride, I turned on the radio and went to the kitchen to make dinner.  My sink was full of dirty dishes, and my little studio apartment did not have a dishwasher, so I began washing the dishes by hand.  Counting Blue Cars came on a few minutes into doing the dishes.  “Tell me all your thoughts on God,” lead singer J.R. Richards sang, “‘cause I’d really like to meet her.”  My hands were too wet and soapy to walk over and change the station, so I left it on.  It really was not a bad song, other than the use of female pronouns for God.  

I will tell you all my thoughts on God, J.R., I thought.  God created the universe and inspired holy men to write the Bible.  Those holy men referred to God with masculine language, so I will do the same.  A huge part of knowing God is knowing and obeying his Word, and not placing the cultural norms of this liberal university town above God’s Word.  I hope you do meet him someday.

But that in no way makes women second-class citizens.  Men and women are both created in the image of God, and both have roles to play in God’s kingdom.  And I had to admit that I had not studied the original languages of the Bible, so I did not know how gender and language worked when the Bible was originally written.

I still felt unsettled about all of this, and uncomfortable with the idea of a church referring to God in the feminine.  I felt just as uncomfortable, if not more so, with church choir members getting tipsy from Communion wine.  “Tell me all your thoughts on God,” J.R. continued, “‘cause I’m on my way to see her.  Tell me, am I very far?”  I was going through the same process as the character in the song, seeking God and wanting to know how to get closer to him.  Maybe that would happen at the Newman Center, or maybe I was looking for something else, but I was asking the right questions and moving in the right direction.

(April 2021. Interlude, part 4, and Year 2 recap.)

If you’re new here, this is not a typical post, but this is the perfect post for you.  Don’t Let The Days Go By is an episodic continuing story about a university student figuring out life.  I am currently on hiatus after finishing writing about Year 2.  Sometime later this spring I will start writing and posting about Year 3.

This week I will be recapping and summarizing Year 2.  Last week, I did the same for Year 1.  Many of my current readers have not been with the story since the beginning, so this is an opportunity to catch up.  I will also include links to some, but not all, of the episodes, so you can read an abridged version of the story more detailed than this recap.  As always, you can start from the first episode (here) and keep clicking Next if you want to read the entire story, 88 episodes so far.  If this is your first time here, and you do not want to read all 88 episodes, you may want to read the recap of Year 1 first.


I went home to Plumdale for the summer and worked in a small bookstore.  I got the job through the connection that one of the two other employees was a family friend.  Mom volunteered me for the job without asking me, and while I hate when she does that, this time I did not mind because I needed something to do, and getting paid would be nice.  I thought at first that working in a bookstore would be fun, but the store was very slow, and not exactly my clientele.

June 22, 1995. The first day on the job.

I had lost touch with most of my high school friends, although I saw a few of them.  I watched a roller hockey game with Rachel, and I saw Catherine and Renee and some of Catherine’s friends from Austria in a choir and orchestra performance that she put together.  I kept in touch with a number of Jeromeville friends, mostly through writing letters, although a few of them had access to email during the summer.  My cousins Rick and Miranda came to visit for a week, and I went with them, my mother, and my brother Mark to Jeromeville for a day, to show everyone around.  I got to see Taylor and another guy from my freshman dorm on that day.

July 18, 1995. The day we went to Jeromeville with Rick and Miranda.

I turned 19 in August.  The lease for my apartment began September 1, and I moved back to Jeromeville the first weekend of September.  Classes did not start until the end of September, but I preferred being bored in Jeromeville to being bored in Plumdale.  I spent that September going on lots of bike rides and talking to lots of girls on Internet Relay Chat.  As the school year approached, I was encouraged as I started seeing familiar faces around campus and town.  Megan, the resident advisor from a nearby building whom I had gotten to know (and like) the previous year, was now an RA in a building in the North Area, and she invited me to have lunch with her at the dining commons.

September 26, 1995.  My lunch date with Megan.

I had plenty of new experiences that fall.  I got a job tutoring calculus for the tutoring center on campus.  Also, Danielle, my friend from last year who also went to Mass at the Newman Center, finally talked me into singing in the choir at church. Another student in the choir, Heather, lived near me, so we usually carpooled to choir practice and to Mass.

October 11, 1995. A busy day.

Liz, another friend from last year, had invited me a few times to Jeromeville Christian Fellowship.  I was hesitant , since I was Catholic and I knew that other Christians did things differently and sometimes looked down on Catholics.  I was not sure that JCF would be the first place for me.  But I finally decided to take her up on her invitation that fall; since I was living alone, I knew that I needed to do all I could to stay close with my friends.  I quickly decided that JCF was a wonderful place for me.  In addition to already having several friends who attended there, I started making new friends, and in addition to learning more about the Bible, I also started socializing with JCF people.

November 17, 1995. What’s a but stop?

I started a new creative project that fall: a novel, about an 18-year-old who is not ready for high school to be over.  He goes away to live with relatives and pretends to be younger so he can go through high school again and get a second chance at having a social life.  I got the idea because I felt that way sometimes.  As the winter went on, my classes continued, I worked on the novel, and the holidays came.  I spent Thanksgiving with my family visiting the relatives in Bidwell.  I spent Christmas back home in Plumdale with my family, where Mom volunteered me for something yet again without asking me.  We made a last minute trip to Disneyland for the New Year, and on that trip we decided on a whim to drive by the house of an infamous celebrity.

December 30, 1995 – January 1, 1996. A family vacation that did not involve boring relatives.

I had still never had a girlfriend, and things never seemed to work out for me.  It seemed like every girl I met always seemed to have a boyfriend.  I was disappointed when Megan, the older girl who was an RA, mentioned at one point that she was dating someone.  I found out something later that made me realize that Megan and I never would have worked out anyway.

January 19-20, 1996. A dangerous glance.

While many positive things had happened so far that year, I still got discouraged and had bad days sometimes.  One of those bad days happened on a Friday, the night that JCF met.  As everyone trickled out of the room, I sat alone by myself.  Two guys, Eddie and Xander, came over to talk to me and invited me to hang out with them afterward, along with Haley, Kristina, and Kelly, three girls who lived down the street from them. I made new friends that night, some of whom I am still friends with today.

January 26, 1996. Pieces falling into place.

The winter quarter was not easy academically.  My classes all had their midterms on the same day.  Then, a few days later, some jerk decided to steal my clothes out of the laundry.  Just when despair was starting to get to me, I saw one of the JCF staff on campus; she told me exactly what it means to follow Jesus, how he died for our sins to bring us eternal life with God. I made a decision that day to follow Jesus.

February 15-16, 1996. And hope does not disappoint us.

With this new outlook on life, I started attending Bible study.  I was learning more about my faith, really paying attention to God’s Word for the first time.  My friend Melissa from high school told me in an email that she went bowling and got a score of 178, her best ever. This was exactly the same as my best bowling score ever, from the fall when I took bowling class. Melissa and I agreed to meet over spring break to see who was truly the better bowler, and that one game was legendary.

March 28, 1996. At the bowling alley and coffee shop during spring break.

In April, the University of Jeromeville got a new ID card system.  We all had to take new pictures, and mine was the worst ID card picture I have ever taken in my life.  The following week, I got invited along on a road trip to Bay City with a mix of old friends, including Sarah and Caroline, and new friends, including Eddie, Xander, and Haley.  We ate at the Hard Rock Cafe, walked uphill to an amazing view, and then drove down the coast to Moonlight Cove and slept illegally on the beach.

April 12-13, 1996. The road trip to Bay City and Moonlight Cove.

Finding a place to live in Jeromeville is a very stressful endeavor.  I heard Pete and Charlie say that they needed a third roommate for next year, but Mike Knepper came along and took that spot just as I about ready to commit.  I asked for prayer about it at Bible study a couple weeks later. Shawn, the senior who co-led the study, almost immediately mentioned that he and his current roommate Brian were staying in Jeromeville another year with no place to live yet.  God answered the first part of my prayer pretty quickly, giving me roommates for next year.  I had trouble finding a house to rent, since we waited so long, but I found a nice apartment on the northern edge of Jeromeville, about two miles from the campus core.

May 1996. Looking for a place to live.

I went to the Spring Picnic again, and I saw the band Lawsuit play.  I also worked the Math Club table for a while, which took away from my time to wander around and have fun, so I learned that day never to volunteer during the Spring Picnic.  I saw the Olympic torch pass through Jeromeville on its way to Atlanta.  I saw Sarah and a few other students from JCF get baptized.  And Haley had become my newest love interest, so of course I had plenty of awkward moments in front of her, as well as in front of other girls.

May 11-16, 1996. A montage of awkward moments.

I was still doing very well in classes.  Being a math major, I was now taking two math classes every quarter, and  started taking upper division math classes in the middle of that year.  Dr. Gabby Thomas was my favorite math professor so far; she spoke clear English and felt like a normal human being more than many of my other professors.  As the year ended, I participated in the Man of Steel competition, a decade-old tradition among the men of JCF involving disc golf, a hamburger eating contest, and a game of poker.  I did not do too well.  Fortunately, my finals went better than the Man of Steel competition, and I ended the year on a positive note, at a huge graduation party hosted by my new friends who were graduating, Brian and Shawn.

June 15, 1996. The graduation party at the Valdez Street house.

Here is the playlist of songs I used in year 2. As always, please leave comments or suggestions or questions for me. I love hearing from all of you. I’m not sure what, if anything, I’ll be doing next week; I will continue the story into Year 3 soon, but in real life, things are going to be a little crazy over the next month or two, so I might need some more time off.

June 11-12, 1996. The new Walk of Shame. (#86)

These days, it is easy to create a new identity and pretend to be someone else online.  Just sign up for a new free email account with Google or Yahoo or any of those, and use that free email account to make a new Facebook or Instagram or whatever else is needed.  Or just use it to send emails with a new name.

In 1996, it was much more difficult to send an email without my real name on it.  Free advertiser-supported email services were still a few years away.  Someone wanting a new email address had three options: get a job with an employer that offered email, attend a university, or pay for it.  However, if the only purpose was to be anonymous and not have a specific name on the message, I knew of one other option, a service called “anon.penet.fi.”  This service was an anonymous remailer; a message emailed to anon.penet.fi would be forwarded to its intended recipient with all traces of the sender’s actual name and email address removed and replaced with arbitrary nonsensical numbers.  I had no idea how to pronounce “anon.penet.fi,” but I thought that the “.fi” ending meant that the service was based on Finland, and “Penet” was presumably the name of the service.  Last year, someone called “Publius” famously posted mysterious messages on the Pink Floyd Usenet forum about hidden messages in the band’s most recent album; Publius used anon.penet.fi to post those messages anonymously.

I used anon.penet.fi exactly once, and when I woke up on that Tuesday morning, I had no idea that I would require the services of an anonymous remailer.  The day started out perfectly normal, at least as normal as finals week could be.  My final for anthropology class, taught by the unfortunately named Dr. Dick Small, was in the afternoon, so I slept in until nine.  That counts as sleeping in for a stressed light sleeper like me, and did a lot of last minute studying after that.  About half an hour before the test was scheduled to start, I rode my bike to campus and parked next to the big lecture hall in Younger Hall, just east of the Quad in the old part of the campus.  I walked inside and found an empty seat toward the back of the room, pulled up the attached writing desk, and got out my blue book, Scantron, and a pen and pencil.  About a minute later, a girl whom I did not know, but had noticed in class before, sat next to me.  She wore short shorts and a low-cut tank top over her firm, round breasts.  I did not know her name.

“Are you ready?” I asked, the first words I ever spoke to her.

“I think so,” she replied.  “Good luck!”

“Thanks.  You too,” I said, the last words I ever spoke to her.

While I waited for the test to start, I turned my head so that I appeared to be staring off into space, but with my eyes still able to look at the attractive girl inconspicuously.  I saw her write her name on the Scantron; her first name was Jennifer, but I could not read her last name.  The test began a minute later, and despite the sexy distraction next to me, I managed to stay focused enough to do my best, and I felt fairly confident when I finished.  The test was straightforward with no real surprises on what was asked or what I had to write about.  I snuck a few glances at Jennifer’s long legs while looking down at the test paper.

I got home, not in the mood to do any more studying since I had no finals tomorrow.  I wasted a few hours writing emails, talking on an IRC chat, reading a book, and eating.  I lay down after I finished eating, and my mind wandered back to Jennifer from anthropology class sitting next to me during the final.  I did not know her, but I wanted to caress her legs and fondle her breasts and kiss her lips.  I began thinking about what that would be like, I found myself becoming aroused, one thing led to another, and ten minutes later I found myself making the Walk of Shame to the laundry room to wash my pants and underwear and sheets.

All I could think about was how I had failed as a Christian.  Jesus said that someone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery in his heart.  I had let Jesus down, and I had also let down all my friends at Jeromeville Christian Fellowship who had prayed with me, and shared the truth of the Gospel with me, and led me in Bible study.

Furthermore, all of this tied up another hour and a half of my evening.  I had not been planning to do laundry today, and I refused to leave clothes unattended in the laundry room after an incident a few months ago when a bunch of my clothes were stolen.  I brought my textbook for combinatorics and used the time to study, even though my final for combinatorics was not until Thursday morning.  I had a hard time concentrating; I kept thinking about how I had failed in my walk with Jesus.

When I got back to my apartment, as I made my bed with my freshly washed sheets, my eyes caught the bulletin board behind my computer.  Last month, I was having a rough day, and I was talking to my friend Sarah Winters between class. She just silently listened to me rant while she wrote two Bible verses on a piece of paper, handing the paper to me when she was done.  I had pinned Sarah’s note to my bulletin board, so it would be there to remind me of God’s Word when I needed it.  And I needed reminders of God’s Word now.

“I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”  Just as God had a plan for the exiles of the prophet Jeremiah’s time, he had a plan for my life too.  He led me here to Jeromeville in the first place, and by putting me in a situation where I lived alone in this studio apartment, he led me to seek out friends, which brought me to Jeromeville Christian Fellowship, where I learned what it really means to know Jesus.

“Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding.  In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will make your path straight.”  My life is not my own.  I was created to serve and glorify God.  I believed.  But if I did, why did I have such a hard time trusting and acknowledging him?  Why could I not just trust that he had something better in store for me than empty fantasies about Jennifer from anthro, whom I did not know and had no chance with?

Everyone around me seemed to have their lives together.  I wondered if any other guys I knew dealt with this.  Probably not.  I felt so ashamed to struggle with this still.  I wanted to talk to someone about this, but I knew that anyone I told would just scold me and remind me that what I did was wrong.  I knew I was wrong.  I needed help, and encouragement, and prayer, not more guilt.

I looked up again at Sarah’s handwritten Scriptures.  Maybe Sarah could help me, I thought.  She was a good friend, one of the nicest people I knew, and she really was living her life for Jesus.  I would learn years later that many Christians would find it inappropriate for an unmarried man to talk to a woman about his struggles with lust, but at this point I just wanted someone to help me in my struggles and pray for me.  I was not trying to hook up with Sarah.  And, honestly, I found girls less intimidating to talk to than guys.  I had spent too much of my life around guys who just wanted to be macho and intimidating.

No, I thought, this was not a good idea.  I did not want Sarah to know my deep, dark secret.  I did not know if I would ever be able to face her again.  If only there was some way I could communicate with her anonymously, being honest about what I was going through without her knowing it was me… and I remembered that there was such a way: anon.penet.fi.

I had learned how anon.penet.fi worked from the Pink Floyd Usenet group, when Publius was anonymously posting cryptic messages.  I had to send the email to a specific address in the penet.fi domain, and the first line of the message had to say “X-ANON-TO:” followed by the actual email of the intended recipient.  This would signal the computer on the other end that this was an actual message intended to be forwarded anonymously to someone else.  On Sarah’s end, the sender would appear as some long number followed by “@anon.penet.fi.”  The server at anon.penet.fi would remember my email and assign me a specific number, so that any message sent to anyone from my email address would get labeled with the same number.  This way, people using anon.penet.fi to communicate anonymously back and forth would at least know that the messages were always coming from the same person.  I took a deep breath and started typing.


X-ANON-TO:sewinters@jeromeville.edu
I am someone you know in real life, and I need someone to talk to, but I am too ashamed to use my real name.  You may call me Joe.


I did not think I looked like a Joe; that should take the suspicion off of me if Sarah tried to guess who sent the message.  As I started typing, I realized that Sarah might not be particularly knowledgeable of the dark intricacies of the Internet, so she may not know what anon.penet.fi was.  When she got this mysterious message with a bunch of numbers as the sender, she might not read it.  I changed the subject line to “please read, this is real, you know me,” and started typing over again.


X-ANON-TO:sewinters@jeromeville.edu
I am using this anonymous email service because I am too ashamed to use my real name.  I am someone you know in real life, and I need someone to talk to.  You may call me Joe.


I continued typing, explaining to her in a couple of paragraphs what happened, and how I felt ashamed, like I was a failure, and I had let Jesus and my friends down.  I concluded the message by explaining that she could reply to this message and I would receive it with all of the names removed.  I took a deep breath and clicked Send before I could second-guess myself.

By now it felt too late to do homework.  I got in bed with the book I had been reading, The Firm by John Grisham.  I read for over an hour and tried to go to sleep around midnight, but sleep did not come quickly.  I woke up in the morning with a headache after having slept for around four hours.


I had no finals the next day, Wednesday, and I did not go to campus.  I went grocery shopping, I read more of The Firm, and I went for a bike ride through the Coventry Greenbelts.  I made a cheeseburger for dinner, and when I was done, I put the greasy pan and my plate in the kitchen sink, which had been piling up with dirty dishes for a few days.  I also spent about four nonconsecutive hours studying for my final in combinatorics tomorrow, even though I was getting an A-plus in the class and I felt comfortable with the material.  During a study break that night, I checked my email and saw this in my inbox as the computer played the tone indicating that I had a new message.


15358854@anon.penet.fi   Re: please read, this is real, you know me


Sarah had written back.  I opened the message and began reading.


Joe,

You are not a failure, and you have not let me down.  You definitely have not let God down.  You said that your friends all have their lives together, but trust me, we really don’t.  We are all sinners saved by grace.  Jesus loves you, and he will never let you go.

I would suggest that you find something to get your mind off of those thoughts when they come up.  Read a Psalm or your favorite Bible verse.  Play worship music, if you play an instrument, or just sing if you don’t.  Go for a walk.  Clean your house.  Do whatever it takes.  But most importantly, don’t get down on yourself if you do mess up.  Remember that Jesus died for sinners like us, not for perfect people who already had their lives together.

Thank you so much for sharing this with me.  I will keep you in my prayers.  Take care and God bless.


I was not feeling particularly aroused today, but I felt like I needed some time with God nevertheless, after all that had happened.  I opened my Bible, having remembered something I had read recently about Jesus dying for us while we were still sinners.  I thought it was in Paul’s letter to the Romans; I found it a few minutes later, Romans 5:8: “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”  Interestingly enough, that verse was just a few sentences past the first verse that I had ever memorized, the one about hope that Janet McAllen from the JCF staff had written when she drew the diagram explaining to me how Christ’s death worked.  I spent some time just sitting there on the edge of my bed, praying.

I read Sarah’s email again.  “Play worship music, if you play an instrument, or just sing if you don’t.”  I did not play an instrument.  I knew songs we sang at Mass, and I was learning some of the worship music that the band at JCF played.  But I had a stereo with a CD player on my shelf, and I had recently purchased two albums by Christian rock bands: the self-titled debut album by Jars of Clay, and DC Talk’s Jesus Freak album.  I put on the Jesus Freak album and really listened to the words while I did dishes and cleaned the kitchen.  The dishes had been piling up for far too long.

I sat down to answer other emails while DC Talk continued playing on the stereo.  Track 10 on the CD was a song called “In the Light”; I had discovered this song two months earlier, when I took the road trip to Bay City and Moonlight Cove with Eddie and Haley and a bunch of other people.  Sarah was on that trip too.  I loved this song already, but the lyrics just hit differently tonight.

What’s going on inside of me?
I despise my own behavior
This only serves to confirm my suspicion
That I’m still a man in need of a Savior.

That was me.  That was exactly what I had been feeling.  Sarah had reminded me that we are all sinners saved by grace, and just because I was giving in to temptations of the flesh sometimes, my sins had been paid for with Jesus’ blood on the cross.

Lord, be my light, and be my salvation
‘Cause all I want is to be in the light.

Anon.penet.fi would shut down a few months later, after too many legal controversies caused by people using anonymous remailing for criminal purposes.  I never attempted to use the service again.  I did reveal to Sarah that I was Joe eventually, but not directly; we were in the same breakout group on a retreat, and this topic came up, so I told the story of sending the anonymous email.  She could tell that I was a little uncomfortable sharing, and all she said to me about it afterward was “Jesus loves you,” along with a pat on the back.

I would go on to learn that many Christian men and women struggle with this, but I never completely resolved this issue in my mind.  I have heard a lot over the years about this culture of sexual purity among Christians.  Some Christians take sexual purity very seriously, refusing to spend time alone with a member of the opposite sex other than one’s spouse, committing to not kissing until the wedding day, things like that.  Others reject purity entirely and brag about how they have had sex with many people they were not married to, but God loves them anyway.  I do not agree with either of those views, and mostly I have just numbed myself to some of the guilt and shame that I used to experience.  One thing is true, though; just like everyone else, I am a sinner saved by grace, and my salvation was bought with the blood of Christ.

Early May, 1996. A stressful week. (#82)

A few months before every Olympic Games, the Olympic torch is lit by the sun on Mount Olympus in Greece and brought across Greece and the country hosting the Games that year.  In 1996, the upcoming Summer Olympics would be held in Atlanta, on the opposite side of the United States from Jeromeville. The torch would travel across the United States by way of a relay.  Thousands of people would carry the torch for a short distance, then pass it to someone else, with crowds of onlookers watching as the torch made its way across their parts of the country.

On the day before the torch passed through Jeromeville, I sat alone at a table at the Memorial Union, eating a burrito and doing the crossword puzzle in the Daily Colt.  I had work to do, I had a combinatorics midterm coming up in a few days, but I was not in the mood to do work, given everything on my mind.  I had been looking for a house for next year, with no luck so far, and I was starting to worry about this.  (This was before I talked to Shawn about looking for an apartment instead.)

I walked into combinatorics class about five minutes before it was scheduled to start; this was the last class before the midterm.  I was a quarter ahead in math entering the University of Jeromeville, so I did not take freshman calculus in large lecture halls with people who were taking math on schedule.  Because of that, this combinatorics class, with about eighty people, was the largest math class I had taken at UJ so far.  I looked around the room and saw Andrea Briggs, who had been in a few classes with me before and lived in the dorm next to mine last year. She sat next to an open seat, so I walked up to it and asked, “May I sit here?”

“Sure,” Andrea replied.

“How are you?”

“I’m great!” she said.  “Jay came to visit this weekend, and he proposed!”  Andrea held up her left hand, with the third finger now bearing a diamond ring.

“Congratulations!” I said awkwardly.  Was that the right thing to say in response to this?  I was not sure.  As far as I knew, she was the first of my friends to get engaged.  This was a completely new experience to me.

“What about you?” she asked.  “How are you?”

“My week hasn’t been nearly as exciting.  I had a quiz in my other math class this morning.”

“Which class?  How’d you do?”

“167, with Dr. Ionescu.  I’m getting an A in that class, but I feel like I’m not learning anything.  Most of what we’re doing is just review from 22A.  And the entire grade is based on surprise quizzes every three or four classes, so there’s no reason to remember anything.”

“Yeah, that’s weird.  But at least you’re getting an A.”

“Yeah.”

Gabby, the combinatorics professor, began lecturing about generating functions for recurrence relations, so I stopped talking and began taking notes.  Dr. Gabrielle Thomas was my favorite math professor at UJ so far.  She was fairly young, I would guess in her thirties; she spoke English clearly; and she told us to call her Gabby, which seemed refreshingly informal to me.  That made her feel more like a human being, whom I could relate to, compared to many of my other professors.

I tried to focus on what Gabby was saying, because of the upcoming midterm.  I still had not mastered recurrence relations, but I thought I would probably do fine once I took the time to study and practice the material.  However, I had a hard time concentrating today.  I kept wanting to sneak glances at Andrea’s left hand, not because of any particular curiosity about what her ring looked like, but because she had one in the first place.  I was over Andrea as a possible love interest; I found out over a year ago that she had a boyfriend.  But it just felt weird, and discouraging, that I was at the age when my friends would be getting married.  Andrea would soon be committing herself to one man for life, probably starting a family with him after she finished school, and I had still never kissed a girl.

After class, as I headed back to the Memorial Union where my bicycle was parked, I saw Danielle Coronado and Claire Seaver from church sitting at a table talking.  Danielle was one of the first friends I made at UJ; she lived down the hall from me in my dorm last year.  “Hey,” I said as I approached them.

“Greg!” Danielle said, smiling and waving.

“Hey, Greg,” Claire said.  “Have you started your project yet?”

“Kind of.”

“Which math class do you two have together?” Danielle asked me.

“Anthro 2,” I explained.  “Not math.”  Danielle’s assumption was warranted, however, because Claire was a music major with a minor in mathematics.

“That’s right, anthro,” Danielle said.  “With that professor who did a class for the IHP last year.”

“Yes.  Dick Small.”  I still found that name hilarious, because of my extensive background in dirty jokes.  “I’m going to observe and write about the IRC channel FriendlyChat,” I continued.

“Is that that thing where you talk to strangers on the computer?”

“Yeah.  Internet Relay Chat.  I was in FriendlyChat earlier today, and there’s some kind of complicated leadership structure with who gets to be a channel operator, and all these rules that they get mad at you for not knowing.  And when I kept announcing that I was doing an anthro project, as the ethics of anthropology require, some of them got mad at me for spamming.  So I’m off to a frustrating start.”

“Well, hopefully you’ll figure out a way to get your project done.”

“I hope so.  I’m just stressed about a lot of things.”

“Sounds like it.”

“I want to go see the torch tomorrow, though,” I said.

“Oh yeah!  When is that supposed to be?”

“It’ll be passing along Fifth Street between 1 and 2.”

“I have class,” Danielle said, feeling slightly disappointed.  “But have fun!”

“I will!  I’m going to head home now, but I’ll see you guys soon.”

“Bye, Greg,” Claire said.

“Bye,” Danielle added, waving.

I waved at the girls as I walked to my bicycle and went home.  I was riding a little more slowly than usual.  I felt weighed down by my upcoming midterm, the anthro project, looking for a house, and my fear of being left behind now that people I knew were getting married.


I had most of the next day free.  After I finished my one class, I planned to stay on campus and get work done until around noon, eat lunch, then go find a place to watch the Olympic torch.  I walked into the Memorial Union after class and looked for a table.  I saw Sarah Winters, whom I knew both from the dorm last year and from Jeromeville Christian Fellowship, sitting by herself at a table, reading, with a notebook and textbook open.  I walked to her table and asked, “May I sit here?”

“Yeah!” Sarah said.  “How are you?”

“I’m stressed,” I said.

“What’s going on?”

“I’ve been trying to find a house for us next year, I’ve looked at a bunch of places, and I haven’t heard anything back yet.  And I have a big midterm for Math 145 tomorrow.  And I’m frustrated in general with Applied Linear Algebra, Math 167.  That class is a waste of time, and I’m not learning anything.”  Sarah began writing something as I continued speaking.  “And I just found out that someone I know, her boyfriend proposed.  I’ve never even had a girlfriend, and now I have friends who are getting married.”  As Sarah continued writing, I wondered if I was bothering her, if I should let her work on whatever she was doing.  “And I have this big project for Anthro 2 that I need to work on, and what I wanted to do hasn’t been working out so far.”  I stopped talking now, because Sarah was clearly busy with whatever she was working on.  I got out my combinatorics textbook and began looking over the section that would be covered on the test tomorrow.

“This is for you,” Sarah said, as she placed the paper she had been writing on top of my textbook. I read what she wrote:


“I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”
Jeremiah 29:11

“Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding.  In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will make your path straight.”
Proverbs 3:5-6


I looked up and saw Sarah looking at me with a peaceful, contented smile on her face.  “Thank you,” I said, attempting a smile in return.

“Everything’s gonna be just fine,” Sarah said.  “Really.”

“I know,” I said.  “But–”

“You’ll be okay.”

I took a deep breath.  “I’ll be okay.”

We sat there for the rest of the hour studying, occasionally making small talk.  “What are you doing the rest of the day?” Sarah asked at one point.

“I’m done with classes for the day.  But I’m gonna go see the torch.”

“Fun!  I can’t.  I’ll be in class during that time.”

I looked again at the note that Sarah wrote.  God had a plan for me.  My grades, my house for next year, my future wife, all of this was in God’s hands.  Trust God.  The second verse, from Proverbs, was a little bit familiar to me already, because there was a song we sang at Bible study sometimes based on that verse.  I had made a decision that I was living my life for Jesus, and now it was time to trust him to make this all work out somehow.  

Sarah left to go to class a bit later.  As I continued studying combinatorics, I really did begin to feel better about tomorrow’s midterm.  At noon, I got out the sandwich I had packed that morning, and when I finished that, I headed toward Fifth Street at the northern edge of campus.  Crowds waiting to see the torch were already beginning to line the street.  I found a spot next to an aged olive tree and leaned against the tree, waiting.  I had my backpack with me, so I continued studying combinatorics while I waited for the torch to arrive.

After I had been waiting for about forty minutes, I saw police cars approaching slowly, stopping drivers and pedestrians from entering or crossing Fifth Street.  This must be it.  Behind the police cars were a number of official vehicles with US and Olympic flags; a truck from Coca-Cola, the event’s sponsor; and finally someone wearing running shorts holding the Olympic torch.  I did not know if the torchbearer was someone famous or not.

I looked up at the torch in wonder.  That flame was ignited on the other side of the world and brought all the way here, continuously burning.  That felt kind of surreal.  This was a symbol of one of the biggest athletic events on Earth.  In two months, the world would be watching athletes from every inhabited continent competing for Olympic glory, and this same flame would burn over the shiny new stadium that Atlanta had just finished building for these Games.  People cheered at the moment that the torchbearer passed in front of them, and I joined in as he passed me.

A few minutes after the torch passed, when the entire entourage had moved beyond where I was standing, I turned around to go back to the Memorial Union, where my bicycle was parked.  “Excuse me?” a man asked me.  He had a fancy camera on a strap around his neck and a small Coca-Cola logo embroidered on his shirt on his chest to his left.

“Yes?” I asked.

“Can I get a picture of you holding this?”  The man handed me a full, unopened Coca-Cola plastic bottle.

I was confused.  “Why me?” I asked.

“No reason.  I’m just looking for people to photograph with Coke bottles, for our promotional materials.”

“Okay,” I said.  I smiled at the camera, holding the drink up, as he clicked the shutter a few times.

“Thank you!” the photographer said.  “You can keep the Coke.”

I walked back toward my bike as I drank my free Coca-Cola.  To this day, I never saw my picture in any Coca-Cola advertisements, so I do not know if they ever ended up doing anything with the picture.  But I got a free drink out of it.


When I got home that afternoon, I turned on the computer and connected to the campus Internet, listening to the whirs and clicks of the modem dialing the access number.  I opened a text terminal and connected to Internet Relay Chat, then entered the FriendlyChat channel using my usual screen name, “gjd76.”  About a minute after I joined, I copied and pasted the same message I copied and pasted every fifteen minutes while I was working on this: “I am working on a project for an anthropology class, making observations of the culture in this channel.  I will not use your actual names or actual screen names.”

“gjd76, u might not wanna tell us that, people might act different if they know ur studying them,” one person typed.

“true, but my professor says it’s unethical not to tell people they’re being studied,” I replied.

“Let me know if I can answer any questions for you,” one of the channel operators said.

“i will,” I typed back.  So far, this was going much better than yesterday; people were actually being helpful.

As I reached for my notebook in my backpack, I found the note that Sarah had written to me, with the Bible verses on it.  I read it again.  Plans to prosper you and not to harm youTrust in the Lord with all your heart.  Good advice.  I took two push pins and attached Sarah’s note to the bulletin board above my desk.  That way it could be a reminder for me while I was sitting here at the computer; I could look up and see those Scriptures.

I spent about an hour and a half in the FriendlyChat channel, and this time I was able to make much more meaningful observations and have more meaningful interactions with the people in the chat than I had yesterday.  If I had a few more days like this, I would have plenty of material to use to write my paper.  I also felt much better about my midterm for combinatorics, after having studied today.  I had still not heard from any of the houses I was looking for, but the more I thought about this, I decided I would talk to my roommates for next year and find out if they would be willing to look for an apartment instead.  They were fine with living in an apartment, and we did end up getting one, as I told before.  And while I was still discouraged with my own lack of romantic relationship in light of Andrea being engaged, the Lord had a plan for her that was not his plan for me, and I was not ready to begin thinking about marriage with anyone right now.  I was better off trusting in His timing.

I would learn later in life that the quote from Jeremiah is often derided as one of the Bible verses most frequently taken out of context.  Reading the chapters around it reveals that God declared those words to a specific group of people at a specific time, not to everyone reading them throughout all of history.  However, statements like that reveal the character of God, and although Jeremiah was not writing to me, the God who had a plan for his people thousands of years ago did also have a plan for me in 1996. The precise concept of “prosper” may not have involved material wealth in my case, but I just had to trust that God knew what was best for me.  Those two verses became ones that I have known from memory ever since.

“Trust in the Lord with all your heart, lean not on your own understanding,” I began singing under my breath.  I liked that song, the one I had heard at Bible study before.  I did not know any of this at the time, but the original vocalist of that song was the same age as me, and still a teenager when the song was recorded.  The guitarist, who actually wrote the song, was not much older.  The two of them and their band would go on to have a major pop hit a few years later, which would confuse me a little in a time when I tended to draw very strict lines between Christian and secular music.  But that is a story for another time.