Altars of Thanksgivings

I have been painfully selective regarding the episodes I’ve related in this space. Like walking down a hallway in the old family home, I’m drawing your attention to some things that seem relevant to this particular narrative, pointing out stains on the carpet and awkward family photos at the expense of more “important” items – opening doors to briefly peek into darkened rooms while bypassing others, leaving their tales untold. Since the primary aim is to relate my personal journey into liturgical and contemplative spirituality, I have kept my stories related to those major events that not only influenced my life but also its spiritual posture.

Unfortunately, that means I have been almost entirely critical about the traditions and institutions that shaped me without offering much in the way of thankfulness. Now, as we transition to the next stage of our journey, I think it right and good to recognize just some of the people, events, and places that molded my mind and heart. Let this be my stone altar of thanks, and small as it is, may it continue to stand in my life as a reminder.

And I absolutely do not apologize for the length.

Cedar Ridge Christian Church
We moved to Broken Arrow, Oklahoma near the end of my fifth grade year for my Dad’s new youth ministry position. Within the walls of this middling-sized church in the Tulsa suburbs, I found a home, friends, and mentors with whom I played music on its stages and talked about life and God well into my college years. In fact, it’s only been in the last couple years that I stopped awkwardly darkening their doors whenever we came to town.

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Better ingredients, better poops, Papa Johns.

I remember the hours of sweeping and mopping Andy and I did in the youth building, talking about everything from God to our irritable bowels (I mean, when you order Papa John’s at 11pm, you sort of deserve what you get…). I remember the “cool” youth sponsors, Seth and Jenni, who hosted a weekly Bible study at their home for years, graciously opening their doors and lives, growing ahead and alongside us – and providing a metric ton of Pillsbury cookies!

From middle school on, I played music on the Sunday and Wednesday youth worship teams, and in my final high school years planned and played in virtually every youth worship service with my friend and talented musician, Brock. We tried every trick we knew to spice up those dumb late-nineties/early-aughts worship tunes, from inserting the scat on O.A.R.’s “Crazy Game of Poker” into “Trading My Sorrows,” to using the riff and chorus for Colletive Soul’s “Shine” during “One Name Under Heaven.”

Yeah, we were bored.

I continued playing music there well into my college years and beyond, allowing myself (and enjoying it) to be thrown into a set whenever one of the many moving parts that makes up an evangelical worship set had fallen through. I even fulfilled my college internship requirements there, working with the worship pastor, Harold, whose profound effects on my life are evident still today. Under his mentorship, my grasp of worship ministry as an integrated piece of a community’s spiritual journey far outpaced what I saw from most of my peers. Himself a stellar musician, Harold never played the diva and liberally spread opportunities to less-accomplished volunteers, giving tips to those who would take them and minimizing the damages of those who would not. His unique mixture of vision and pragmatism enabled the navigation of the turbulent “worship war” waters, keeping an easily-fractured community together through corporate worship.

Ozark Christian College
I have often questioned whether I would still choose to attend OCC if given a do-over. Thankfully, that is not a decision I need to make today, and can sidestep some of the more hurtful experiences to offer thanks.

Ozark taught me to study the Bible. Period. Under the eyes of those professors, I learned to critically study the Scriptures in search of the world and words inhabited by its authors. Yes, I later came to use those tools to draw different conclusions, but the receipt reminds me forcefully of their point of purchase.

Prof. Buckland was my first mentor. I came to know him in high school and within my first weeks at Ozark had wormed my way into his small cadre of students that met at his home every Monday morning for coffee and brownies topped with an egregious amount of icing. He was more than a mentor, he was my rabbi, and I sat at his feet gratefully soaking up his wisdom, humor, and compassion.

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Literally better than every sermon I heard (and didn’t hear) in chapel. No regrets.

Sarah, whom I first met running interference for a girl I tried to date. The girl and I didn’t work out, but Sarah became my friend and truly, my family. We spent more hours together than I could count: sharing rides home, skipping chapel for Starbucks, rescuing each other from bad relationships, and generally factoring into every day of each other’s lives for four solid years.

My roommate Jordan, who eased me into friendships and worship ministry and was willing to call me out when necessary; with whom I saw a friendship grow, disintegrate, and bloom again into a deeper affection. He and his wife Lauren were our first “couple friends,” the first with whom we felt close enough to make the Blizzard Pact.1

Dan, who wandered unknown into my dorm room one night looking for coffee and left hours later with a standing weekly man-date that consistently carried us through graduation.

My housemates: Nick and Drew (and the revolving door of chumps who paraded through our house . . . Mike), who taught me about beer, spiced rum, and not to take myself so seriously. May our pub, Pizza By Stout, rest in peace.2

The list could and does go on:

Prof. Mahn, who literally taught me to sing.
Robert: fellow Peter-ite, camping enthusiast, dear friend, and the infamous Guy on the Couch of our disgusting cave of a house.
Tim, whom I came to know better after leaving school but with whom I share some odd OCC commonalities.3
J.D., the first person for whom I can truly say I was a pastor and who literally almost got himself murdered by Nick, Drew, and myself.4

The names and experiences trail off into inexpressible sounds of thankfulness.

While I am glad of the faith home in which I and my family have found ourselves a decade later, I frankly would not be me without Cedar Ridge or Ozark. In their halls and among their – my – people I came love God, the Church, and the Word.

So, thank you.

1. If another family is in your home and blizzard passes through, it is assumed they will stay that night with you. You will then start your next day the Gergich way.

2. Complete with a massive beer menu and “authentic” English pub, it was my first (beer) love… and was utterly leveled by the catastrophic Joplin Tornado in 2011.

3. Hooray for exes!

4. You know what you did.

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