I grudgingly make good on my resolution to start regularly attending church on Sundays, and MapQuest a tiny church called City View a couple blocks from my cousin's flat. It is not an entirely positive experience. The church is tiny and sweltering hot, and I arrive late for service and low on sleep, and the pastor, a gaunt, sensitive-eyed, too-young-to-be-old fellow with a tuft of short grey hair, is delivering what I construe as the same touchy-feely "God is love" sermon every non-Christian has heard a million times. I perk up a bit when he picks up a guitar and starts singing worship music--some of the hymns are familiar to me from Cedar Campus--and I am somewhat moved by his intense enthusiasm in singing the words, but the perk fades quickly as each hymn goes on and on for tens of minutes, and the already tiny congregation starts to peter out as people lose patience. It feels like some kind of divine joke--a really funny divine joke, in retrospect, but not funny at the moment. Remembering how Jesus also tried the patience of his audiences to separate the believers from the merely curious, I stick around for the whole thing. By the end there are maybe six people left, and they say hello and introduce themselves, and I make some idle conversation with them, my leaden eyes and empty stomach demanding that I keep it short. I can almost feel God shaking his finger at me for showing His house so little respect, but by this point I can think of nothing but my need for rest. Just as I am about to leave the pastor shakes my hand, introduces himself as Steve Weaver, gives me his phone number and invites me to dinner at his place.
Now this takes me slightly aback. It is not unusual for churches to be friendly to newcomers--indeed, one of the great things about the Christian religion is that any stranger can enter virtually any church in the world and be welcomed with open arms. But this man is virtually asking me out. I have known him for maybe twenty minutes, and already he is inviting me, a complete stranger, into his home. In San Francisco. This is a city where little old ladies hang around bus stops scamming young people out of their bus money*, and this man is asking me to come into his house and eat with him. I eye him with mistrust, trying to ascertain his motives. Cautiously I thank him and leave.
(*This is not an exaggeration. I was a victim of one such scam.)
Fast forward one week. Things get worse. The day I'm scheduled to sign up with a young Web 2.0 startup south of downtown, they cut my position. Offers at other places get withdrawn, some due to my inexperience, some out of sheer misfortune. Internships across the city begin, and as positions are filled, opportunities for me grow exponentially fewer each day. The wireless router in my cousin's flat goes dead for no discernible reason, and without access to craigslist it becomes very difficult to look for jobs or housing. My cousin's roommates make subtle inquiries as to when I will leave, and the July 1 deadline for finding housing--most landlords will only rent out rooms at the beginning of each month--is looming near. My cousin chides me for everything I'm doing wrong; she is sympathetic to my plight but sees everything I am doing as incontrovertible proof that I am not yet capable of taking on the world on my own. I am angry and desperate and frustrated. I am on my last nerve.
I am singing hymns in the streets, praying at all hours of the day, reading Scripture each day as if it were the New York Times--not to bargain with God to get me out of this mess (God is not a crutch, and to pray for miracles to get you out of the mess you created yourself is selfishness), but because in my hardship I feel close to Him, as it teaches me that my life is in His hands and not mine. They tell you to trust in God's providence at Cedar Campus, to not worry about misfortune because God will always carry you through--but it is easy to forget that God promises this only to those who are doing His word in ministry. To think that God will always provide loaves and fish for the faithful hungry is to believe in a theology removed from easily observable fact. How many Christians die each year of starvation, their hands clasped in prayer? How many of thirst? How many of God's chosen people, the Jews, did God allow to die in the Holocaust, though they prayed daily for God to deliver them in their time of greatest need, as He had promised? Miracles are miracles because they are so far removed from what usually happens. If God always provided to those who were always true to Him, they would grow arrogant in our faith (not that they don't, regardless). To a Christian the Gospels are the truth, but so is the book of Job. Sometimes there are greater things at stake than your own sorry ass.
But it's strange how realizing that God is not obligated to save my ass at the last second--or at all, for that matter--brings me closer to Him. I think of Jesus with his hands nailed to the cross, praying for deliverance, praying for some miracle to take him down, and for the first time in his life, having that deliverance not come. (Eloi, eloi, lema sabachthani?) He lived and died with little to His name but the Word and the Name itself--the Son of God walked the earth not as a king, but a carpenter. I feel an odd kinship with Him in the knowledge that He knows hardship better than I do. I wonder if this is why He came down in human flesh--to experience this. I have never felt closer to Him, and I have never felt farther away. I realize I need God more than ever--and who better to help me sort him out than one who has devoted his life to God's word?
Against my better judgment, I call Steve Weaver and ask him if he's still up for dinner. He reacts warmly--he remembers me--and invites me to spend the Fourth of July with his family. (That's a good sign--a man with a family is less likely to be a Midnight Cowboy-esque lonely gay guy.) I accept. Trusting him is a leap of faith, but that is what I need more than ever at this point--faith. And the circumstances in which I had met him were so strange, so tinged with the odor of fate, that I realize that meeting him had to be the work of God.
I was, of course, wrong to distrust Steve Weaver. And I was wrong to distrust God.
The first thing I should mention about Steve Weaver is that he has six kids.
The youngest, Caleb, is maybe five or six years old. The eldest, Sam, is about the same age as I am. This takes a lot out of him and his wife Deborah, but they don't seem weary like the parents of big families tend to be. They have enough love for six kids and they have enough for six more. It sounds trite to say I have never met such good people in my life, but that's really the only way to describe it. They are genuinely good people. Yes, they are people, and all the usual bits of anger and frustration and meanness and spite inherent in being parents are in them (well hidden to preserve the sanctity of a family gathering, especially in the presence of a guest)--it's all there. But underneath the goodness in them is almost overwhelming. Take every old lady or gentleman who has ever picked up a stray dog or bought a homeless guy a meal or broken up a barfight, and you have these two. Granted, they're not saints--they have not completely escaped the mistrust that comes from living in a city where little kids try to pick your pockets--but they are far more warm, kind, and friendly than anyone should ever be expected to be. They are open about their personal lives, much of which are devoted to the needs of others, and feel terrible about sins most people would be proud to have. They show an inordinate amount of respect for strangers and an a strong interest in the well-being of others. They remind me, if anything, of Abraham and Sarah.
"I confess that the way I am around beggars isn't right," said Steve when I had told him about Nick and Keith. "My gut instinct is either to give them something or ignore them. And neither of those is what these people need." His face grew pained. "When I can give them something more substantial--the number to a church, or a soup kitchen, I do. But sometimes I don't know what to do." And Deborah mentioned another pastor and his wife who had literally given up everything they had and moved into an abandoned school bus, in which they held services for the homeless. They didn't condemn these people, they didn't tell them to get jobs or stop drinking or take a shower--they just taught that God is love, and that Jesus died for all, not just the rich and the clean-shaven. And a lot of the congregation is still homeless, but Steve and Deborah see what their friends are doing as far more important than merely getting these people back on their feet (as important a goal as that is). Clean up their lives--or save their souls? Both are important, but one lasts a lifetime, and one lasts for eternity. One leads to cleaner streets and the other leads to keener consciences. And the members of the homeless congregation Steve and Deborah have met are appreciative that they can go and worship at a place that will not judge them and will offer them the love and community of God (and free food!) with no strings attached. This is not the kind of treatment they could expect from many regular churches, which want nothing less than the complete and total assimilation of converts into the Christian community. Steve keeps this in mind for the services he holds at City View.
And these parents have done the impossible and passed this goodness to their kids. The kids run the gamut of insurance-commercial archetypes--there's the l33tspeaking jock-turned-soldier (who just finished a stint at the Marine Reserve), the hyperactive little kid who catches flies in jars, the precocious pubescent boy who vocalizes dreams of skinning his first deer, the wistful and aloof teenaged girl (the rest are boys), the shy and sensitive Christian rock drummer, the gun-and-guitar tinkerer cowboy. Lined up together they look a little like a Punett square, but put them all in the same room and it's hard to imagine how two people could produce such a variety of personalities. What all of them have in common is a genuine, visible goodness of heart that I wouldn't expect so uniformly from a litter of six, with all that competition for parental attention. (I mean, my father came from a family of nine, and his family squabbles like royalty.) So many of them, including and especially the ones that are out of school and somewhat out of the influence of their parents, participate in volunteer and charity work. And each and every one of them approached me individually during my visit to their house, including the littlest ones, and had something to show me or say to me, and treated me like I had been a friend of the family for their entire lives. I wouldn't be quick to say that there isn't a rebel among them (what pastor's family would be complete without an atheist? this one, apparently), but astoundingly, all of them share their father's faith in God--it just manifests itself in a different way for each child: two of them listen to Christian rock, one of them likes Christian rap, one of them likes gospel...
Of course, they were probably being extra nice because it was July 4 and it was rare for the family to be all together, and they were most likely on their best behavior in the presence of a guest. And they did pick on each other constantly and get in each other's hair, as siblings are wont to do. But they were always so gentle about it, even when they were being mean--not at all like, oh, every other family I've known. I don't know whether it's the genes or the upbringing, but they have inherited from their parents a capacity for love and kindness that I did not think was humanly possible. That capacity wasn't always met, but it was always there. Generally it's hard to justify bringing six new lives onto this crowded planet, but if the parents are Steve and Deborah Weaver, I think an exception can be made. No, nix that--six exceptions.
The other thing I should mention about the Weavers is that they really like guns.
Make no mistake, they are a hunting family, and they are proud of it. Stowed away in a padlocked and combination-locked locker were some of the most beautiful lengths of wood and steel to have been produced since the age of swords, fitted with custom scopes and painstakingly resanded stocks, and polished to a silvery gleam. The whole family crowded around Sam's bag when Sam revealed that he had bought a new gun at music school in Tennessee, and pretty soon the blinds throughout all the house had to be closed because everyone was sighting unloaded rifles at the ceiling and commenting on trigger pull and stock weight, and there are probably fewer things scarier in San Francisco than passing by a window and seeing six hunting rifles pointed in your general direction. Even the little ones were hoisting rifles in the air to get a feel for their weight and accuracy (though never pointing them at people, even when unloaded, and treating the weapons with reverent respect--it was apparent that they had been given many lectures on gun safety), and when all the real guns were all safely locked away, their uncle bestowed upon them a gift--an electric full-automatic airsoft submachine gun, the kind that shoots a stream of plastic BBs two or three feet. When I confessed my bewilderment at seeing so many weapons of instantaneous death in one place, Steve put forth an impassioned defense of the Second Amendment that afternoon, and while I was not convinced, I was certainly impressed. He also talked at length about the different species of deer in the United States and their roaming and foraging habits--the hunter knows his prey. Joe also did some posing with his father's .44 Magnum. "Do you feel lucky, punk?" he asked in his best Dirty Harry voice. "Lol. Noob."
At one point one of the littlest ones--I don't remember which--came to me and showed me his most prized possession, a delicately curved, wickedly sharp four-inch hunting knife. "It's a skinning knife," he said excitedly. "When I'm thirteen, Dad and Ben are going to take me hunting, and I'm going to skin my first deer."
I was appalled. "Why would you want to do that?" I asked.
He looked at me as if I had asked the dumbest question in the world. "Because it wouldn't be right killing the deer if we weren't going to eat it, and you can't eat venison with skin on it."
Sam spent a good hour proudly and excitedly talking about gun modification with his father, then wasted little time in sprawling his new rifle across the kitchen table, lovingly and delicately tinkering away at it with a crateful of tools. Steve, sensing my discomfort, chuckled and said, "Don't worry about him. If you had come on any other week, chances are he'd be doing the same thing to his guitar."
But these folk aren't rough-and-tumble Charlton Heston types. Before we ate, we all held hands in a prayer circle, and Steve prayed for each of us individually--I suppose that's the only way you can get a family of eight to say grace before a meal. As a group, we had one of the most intense, brutal, no-holds-barred discussions about God and personal concerns with Him that I have ever had the opportunity to participate--as a pastor, Steve knows his stuff, and his wife knows it just as well; and a few of the kids hung around and listened with far more interest than I'd expect anyone to have in their father's profession. Joe and Ben worked on getting the style sheets to display right in Joe's Counter-Strike clan forum, and Edith was idly playing against the computer in Microsoft Hearts. Downstairs, there was a jam session with the drums in the garage, and few things are more amusing than three brothers, all skilled drummers, trying to upstage each other.
Also, I've said it once and I'll say it again: Video games bring people together. Other hobbies may give people a grudging acceptance of each other, but video games truly bring people together. I was a little wary of Joe at first because there was a little bit of a hyena-howl frat boy to him, but I have honestly never had a more gentle yet genuinely engaging about Counter-Strike. Joe and Ben showed me screenshots of the new Half-Life Classic Source--the fan-made one, not the one Valve shipped with new water effects and little else--and our collective ooooooooooooooooooooooooo transcended all barriers of race, culture, or religious understanding.
It took a lot of effort to pile us all into the van and head down to a nearby city for fireworks (which are illegal in San Francisco). The siblings ran off on their own, and soon I didn't know where anyone was. ("When there's six of them to run after," Deborah explained, "you stop trying. And they always find their way back.") We found a prime spot on a street by the bay, and the family passed around boxes of Cheez-Its and York peppermint chocolates and Hershey's Kisses, and the kids lay snuggled side by side on a giant beach towel watching the lights explode (to shouts of "WOOO! LOL! DEAD BABIES!" from Joe the Marine), and as fire trickled across the sky it cast reds and oranges over the faces of each sibling and their mother and their father, and there was the most incredible feeling of warmth and peace and love I have ever experienced. And I imagine it must have been a hell of a time raising six kids, but for moments like this, it must be worth it.
Their family is so cute. I want one. (A family. Not theirs.)
On the way back they stopped at In-N-Out Burger for fries (best fast-food burgers and fries in America), and though I held up the whole family waiting for my burger no one gave me much trouble about it. Ben stayed behind when his brothers left with their food.
"Shouldn't you be back with the others?" I asked.
"Nah," he said, looking away almost embarrasedly, "just felt like chilling with you." He adjusted his glasses--he's a high school senior, and the uncertainty of that age was beginning to show, especially as a middle-middle child used to hanging around and being picked on by his older brothers. "You're in college, right? What's that like?"