Am I Christian?
I am pretty sure, if there is a heaven, my old minister, Pastor Sanderson, is going to
meet me at the Pearly Gates and ask me for the sixteen sermon notes, the half a
year’s lesson worksheets, and the entire year’s worth of Bible memory work that I
owe him from confirmation or I will probably not be getting in.
I was not the easiest student he ever had. In fact, I kind of believe that I was more
than likely a bur under his saddle, the hair shirt he had to wear. If there is a modern
saint on this earth, it was he. I tested the limits of that sainthood. I asked questions I
probably should not have asked. I not only slept in church, I made it a show. After he
gave a sermon on the evils of a movie called The Life of Brian, I made it a goal of
mine to see it. To say I pushed him to the limit is an understatement.
I can still remember sitting in his office for my confirmation interview, to decide
whether I would pass or not. Two years of study came down to a few minutes in his
study. For most of my fellow classmates it was a pro forma rubber stamp meeting.
They had actually bothered to fill in the six pages of questions he had given us. Mine
sat perfectly creased in my spiral notebook, having not been touched since he had
handed them to us a couple of weeks earlier. The chair seemed extra hard as I
squirmed as he looked at me across the desk.
My parents had order the cake. Invitations had been sent out. I stood to make $200,
maybe $300, in confirmation gifts, which is a lot of money for a 9th grader back then.
With the money I had squirreled away from odd jobs, I had my eye on an amazing
stereo system, top of the line. There was a lot at stake as he somberly asked me,
“And why in the world should I pass you?”
At that moment I did something very stupid, I told him the truth, “I wouldn’t pass me if
I were you.” I then started to dig my grave a little deeper. “I don’t even know if I
would call myself a Christian. In fact, I know I wouldn’t. Everyone of those yim yams
who will proudly tell you that they are a Christian I pretty much dislike.”
I was already rehearsing in my head, as I said those words, what I was going to say
to my parents and, unlike this moment, lying was probably going to be front and
center. They were not going to be happy with me. All I needed was for him to dismiss
me and I was out the door. Oh, it would be humiliating for my parents. But we both
knew before I ever walked into his office that this ship was going down, so why
waste both our times.
Instead of pointing towards the door, which I was kind of hoping he would do, he
looked at me over his glasses and said, “Well, young Mr. Soderstrum, what would
you call yourself?”
I didn’t know. At that moment in my life, I had entered that awkward stage, having
gone through puberty a lot sooner than most of my classmates. My hair was so oily
that an OPEC nation could have planted a flag in it. Splotchy skin, horrible zips, I
would not have been surprised if a blind person would have tried to read my face by
mistake. Thick glasses, this was a time period when the bigger glasses were in style.
And I am guessing given my clumsiness, they were probably twisted and sat askew
on my nose. Nothing fit right. I was big for my age. Looking back I wasn’t fat, but I
thought I was. When I opened my mouth, my voice sounded like I gargled with
rocks. My older brothers everyone, particularly my teachers, reminded me were
perfect. Girls in my class literarily came up to me to ask me to put in a good word for
them with my brothers. I was no prince. I would have had to aspire to even a frog.
No self-confidence, zero, zip. It was a painful, awful, horrible time.
Here was this old man asking me what I would call myself? I was just trying to get
through the day and the day after that. The only thing that got me through that time
period were my two friends. I had met my friend Mark in nursery school and my
friend Matt in kindergarten. We had ridden bikes, played backyard football, swam in
the river together, and been mean as boys could be to each other, but were always
friends. In the midst of the illogic that comes with raging hormones and chemistry
changing, I, at least, had that going for me.
The only reason I bothered to even walk into the church on Saturday mornings was
that my friend Matt was in the confirmation class with me. Unlike me, I am pretty
sure he never experienced that awkward stage. Tall and slim, he looked like a long
lost Kennedy brother. He even had a bit of a dangerous air to him, having come from
the wrong side of the tracks. There was nothing dangerous about him. He was one
of the nicest guys around. I had overheard several of the girls mention how attractive
they found him. It was irritating because I wanted them to like me.
So, when Pastor Sanderson asked me what I would call myself, I had to think about
it. I did not know the word, but I told him this story. About a year earlier the
congregation had hired a young pastor to help Pastor Sanderson because the
church had grown too large for just one man. That winter our new pastor thought it
would be a wonderful thing to take our confirmation class to a huge weekend
Christian youth gathering in Minneapolis. I would have rather have jammed a fork in
my eye. First, it is Minneapolis in the winter. Second, we were going to have sleep
on the floor in some cold drafty church in sleeping bags. Finally, a whole weekend in
church was like a prison sentence, lets hold hands and see if we can contact the
There were nine of us going, not including the pastor and our volunteer youth
director. The other eight were the popular kids in my 9th grade class, and I was not.
For several weeks I tried to get out of it, even begging my parents to let me not go,
but they seemed to believe, because it involved Jesus and church, it would be good
With no escape hatch, I decided to make the best of a bad situation. I showed up
early. Waiting in front of the church, one of the parents had lent the church their two-
tone brown and tan van for our trip. It was one of those huge vans with two sets of
captain’s chairs and two bench seats. The second set of captain’s chairs had been
turned around and the two bench seats folded out to form a giant bed. All of us kids
could sit in a giant circle on these benches for our three-hour drive to Minnesota.
I was the first one there. Handing my sleeping bag, pillow, and suitcase to our young
pastor, who stuffed them under this giant bed as I climbed in and waited for
everyone else. Three or four others showed up. My friend Matt was running late like
normal. The pastor and our youth director went into the church, probably to enjoy a
few last moment of freedom before being trapped with a bunch of teenage kids for
three days and two nights or hell on earth as it is more popularly known.
Pretty soon a group of four girls walked towards the van. They were among the most
popular girls in my class. All of them extremely attractive, the kind of girls I used to
pray would talk to me. The leader, a short blonde, looked at me and actually spoke
to me. It was a shock. In front of the seven other kids there, she said, “Trevor, get
out. We figured out that eight of us can sit back here together comfortably; nine and
we will not get the space we need. We decided that you are the one that needs to sit
on the floor,” pointing at the space between the two sets of captain’s chairs.
I would love to say that I pointed out that all of us could have sat together in a circle
and been comfortable. It would have been a tight fit, but we could have done it. If I
sat on the floor by myself I wouldn’t be able to see or talk to them, let alone be part
of the group. I would also like to say I called her a few choice names, but I didn’t. I
was embarrassed and humiliated. Even if I had wanted to say something, nothing
came out. It was one of those moments that every teenager dreads. I meekly slid out
and assumed my appointed spot on the floor.
As I sat there, I heard the girls debating which one was going to get to sit next to
Matt and all the fun they were going to have in Minnesota. The nice thing about that
spot is no one could see me cry. I put my head down into my forearms, which were
resting on my knees, and I silently cried. I was not going to give up what shreds of
dignity I had left by letting them hear me cry. I heard the side door slide shut, then
the pastor and youth director climbed in, shut their doors, the engine turned over,
and we were on our way to the Twin Cities. I cried, I admit it. They were painful
tears. I buried my head as hard as I could into my forearms.
When the last tear passed, I finally looked up and there sitting next to me was my
friend Matt. He was sitting on the floor with me! He could have been with the popular
kid, spent three hours charming these girls who clearly were into him, and been
comfortable. Instead, he was sitting on the hard van floor with me.
I looked at Pastor Sanderson and said, “I don’t know what that is called, what my
friend did, but that is what I want to be.”
After hearing my story, Pastor Sanderson for some unknown reason passed me.
When people ask me if I am a Christian, I quietly remember what my friend did for
me and say to myself, “I don’t know what it is called, but that is what I want to be.”