We ate pumpkin seeds in a Ford Taurus as it sped along I-80. Food in my dad’s nice car — leather seats and built in GPS before iPhones and GoogleMaps were zygotes in the mind of Steve Jobs — was a treat, even as a newly-minted adult. It was the first such trip we would take in his car, the first in half a lifetime of memories.
I'm thinking now it might also have been the last.
Most of my road trips were spent driving a compact sedan, mom in the passenger seat, my sister trying out her Mad Libs in the back. But this trip was significantly different in that I was alone with my father, and he was voluntarily taking me someplace new, someplace special.
Chicago, far away from the place and person I’d been.
I don’t remember exactly why I chose this school. I wasn’t exactly devout. Oh, I believed, that’s true. And I was pure enough. But a career in the church was not something I envisioned for myself. Instead, I think that I was coddled by the word Bible (the hefty middle name sandwiched between Moody and Institute). The good book's stamp of evangelical orthodoxy wrapped me up in a cloak of security and nobility.
In Lawrence, I was the good one, the pure one, the conservative-traditional-alone-afraid-anxious-quiet one in a wildly unpredictable state university sea. In Chicago, nestled within the filmy bubble of theological homogeny, I could safely stand out and stand just slightly apart—a player in the game of sanctification. I could keep my crazy just off to the side, observe the truly holy ones in their natural habitat, watch indifferently as they were fed daily doses of spiritual miracle grow. If I stood just close enough, this radiant glow might rub off on me, too.
I could certainly be good enough there, or I might very well confirm my status as one of the not-so-good ones.
That didn't seem so bad, either.
So this is how my dad and I came to be sharing pumpkin seeds on an eight-hour summer drive through the cornfields of Illinois, when we stopped at truck stops and overpasses, sharing meals and faint memories, the few we had in common. This is how I ran away from home, from Mom, from a boy, from my friends, from the place where everyone knew me and knew every line of my sad story. This is how my dad — the Lieutenant with a badge in the glove apartment should he be in need of a highway patrolman's good graces — came to be a co-conspirator in my fleeing the scene.
And this is how I came to fall in love with the city, with the lakeshore, with the violence and grace of Christ, and with the pastoral student who wore ties and dress shoes, who pressed his pleated trousers before class.
If I were to think of a moment that changed the course of my life, that first pumpkin seed would be it. The smallest bite of the straightest road, two days before my 19th birthday, twenty years ago this week.