Gary Wilson wanted a son to follow in his footsteps, and after three tries, he finally got one. Keith Alexander Wilson was born on July 17, 1986. Don’t get me wrong, Gary loved his daughters, Sharon and Stacey. They were darling girls, with silky brown curls and sweet dispositions. Sharon was already in the second grade when her brother was born, and she was always top of her class. She took piano and played two levels higher than the other children her age. Stacey was only in kindergarten, and not quite the academic success that her sister had been, but was charming and generally agreed to be a delightful girl. But a son- that’s what he had wanted.
You see, Gary was the fifth in a line of ministers in his family. His father had been the pastor of the church that Gary now led, and his grandfather had been a minister back in Connecticut, and his father before him, and his father before him. He had an uncle and two great-uncles and several cousins also in the ministry. And an aunt, but she was Methodist.
It was silly, of course, you can’t force a calling, Gary knew that. But as his lovely wife Sharon stood beside him at church later that fall, with his parents and his grandmother attending, he dedicated his son to the Lord and could not help confessing to the congregation his hopes that one day, having “trained him up in the way he should go,” Keith would carry on the tradition of the Wilson family.
But it would not be as easy as that.
Keith was a stubborn child, not very easy to train at all. He didn’t sleep through the night for almost 2 years, he touched and grabbed everything as a toddler- constantly getting into the sugar dish, even when it was locked in a cabinet. Prying off the child-safety covers of the outlets and putting sticks into them, barely avoiding his own electrocution, and forever violently shrieking and biting when told, “No.”
Not like his sisters at all, who had been docile and had barely ever received even a spanking. In fact, when Sharon gave in to the temptation of taking a candy from a grocery aisle at the tender age of 6, she herself had woken her parents in the middle of the night to confess, saying she couldn’t sleep because she had been naughty.
Keith was not like that.
Carol read all the parenting books that Gary brought her- “Dare to Discipline,” “The Strong-Willed Child,” “Bringing Up Boys,” and many others. She was firm, she was patient, she was constantly praying.
He wasn’t a bad-hearted kid, they agreed. He was likeable and friendly, loved to play and excelled in youth soccer. He was good-looking, with dark hair like both of his parents and a tan that accentuated his bright smile and deep, dark eyes. His sisters were both fair and freckled.
Sometimes Carol would look at the photos on their walls and sigh. They seemed to grow up so fast. By high school, Sharon and Stacey were both tall and graceful- like her mother had been. Sharon was in debate club and student council, she had high test scores and already had gads of colleges sending her information and asking her to apply. Stacey was a freshman and had joined the track team. She wasn’t the best, really, at anything- but she was so friendly and social and never lacked for something to do. She talked of being a teacher someday, but Sharon still hadn’t told them what she w
Sharon was leading a student led bible study at her school, waking up early on Tuesdays to ride her bike so that she could arrive before the buses. She seemed to enjoy it and had gone on two retreats with the Student Ministry Organization. Gary wasn’t too sure about them (it was ecumenical) and he questioned her closely about whether the gospel was being shared as he looked through the curriculum.
“Remember,” he said to her. “There’s no use talking about the love of God to people who are doomed to hell. You have to first remind them that they are in rebellion, and need to be reconciled.”
“The Romans Road, I know, Daddy,” Sharon said, and smiled at him. “Mark went through that all last year.”
“But what about the new students?” he asked. “Some of them might not know it.”
“We only have two new students- they’re sixth graders and they’re both in Awana, Dad. The Miles twins.”
“Sixth grade?” he asked. “I didn’t know the club went so young.”
“Yes, middle schoolers are allowed to join, too,” she answered. “They weren’t when I was that age, but they just started.”
Gary looked to Keith, who was playing a football video game on the floor in the living room. “Did you know you can go to the school bible club?” he asked the boy. Keith glanced over without pausing his thumbs from moving.
“Yeah, I knew,” he answered.
“Well, have you gone?”
“Why not?” Gary asked.
Keith didn’t look away this time, just leaned his body in the direction that his virtual player was running, intent on making his goal even while he answered. “I already have youth group and Sunday School. I pretty much know all that bible stuff already.”
Sharon scoffed. “You know ‘all that bible stuff’?”
He scrunched his face. “Okay okay, I don’t know all of it, but a lot more than most of the kids at that club.”
“I think you should go to it,” Gary said. “If Sharon and Stacey are going, you can do it, too. It won’t kill you.”
“Aw, Dad…” groaned Keith, pausing his game and flopping himself in his dad’s general direction over the ottomon. “You don’t understand. It’s all girls there.”
“William Jennings goes,” Stacey said. She had wandered through in search of a snack and now leaned on the back of the couch with a handful of grapes. “He’s not a girl.”
“You would know,” Keith said, reaching up and grabbing her grapes. “He only goes for you.”
“Hey!” Stacey said, and launched herself down over the couch towards him, but it was too late. They were already crammed in his mouth. The two of them wrestled for a minute in laughter, but Gary wasn’t smiling.
“You don’t have to force him to come,” Sharon said. “It’s better to have people come who actually want to be there.” She picked up her stack of study materials and disappeared down the hall.
The situation wasn’t resolved to Gary, though. That evening, he and Carol spent a somber evening counseling in the home of a young mother of two who was dealing with an abusive and unfaithful spouse. In the quiet of their dark van, with the radio off and nothing but the headlight on the dark road in front of him, he told her about the conversation with Keith.
“He is very bible literate,” Carol remarked. “He doesn’t really need to go. And there is the question of the teacher…”
“Sharon?” Gary asked. “She’s perfectly capable.”
“But she’s a girl,” Carol said. “Think of it. He’s almost 12, he’s beginning to feel like a man. He doesn’t want to learn from a girl.”
“I did think of that,” he said. “But she’s really leading a discussion group, not so much teaching. I encouraged her to think of it like that, for the sake of the young men her age who might be in it.”
“But more than that- it troubles me that he doesn’t seem to be interested in studying the Word of God,” Gary said. “Even during family devotions, he checks out half the time, or seems disinterested.”
“He’s a boy,” Carol reminded him. “You’re comparing him too much to the girls. He likes to be active, think on his feet. He’ll get older. He’ll come around.”
“I’m just worried about what might happen in the years before that happens,” Gary said. Carol reached over and took his hand.
“Let’s pray about it,” she offered. He nodded, and they did, as they had so many times before.
Keith went to bible club a few times, at his dad’s insistence, but then he joined the swim team, which happened to meet before school on Tuesdays and Thursdays,
Sharon’s bible study was a huge success. Before long, it was her favorite pastime. She loved digging into the scripture lesson each week and preparing a lesson that would interest and challenge the other students. The group was connected with the International Fellowship of Christian Students, and later that year she was invited to be a delegate at the National Convention. Before they met, she sent in an entry for their annual essay contest, and took first prize. They asked her to speak at the convention, and she chose the theme “Reaching The Digital Generation for Christ.”
It was exhilarating- she was shaking and stumbled over the first few words, but after the audience laughed politely at her introductory joke, she felt encouraged and moved on to the crux of her point- that reaching her peers called for increasing discernment in the modern world, but that the gospel was as enduring as ever. As she spoke, she felt an increasing fire in her belly- she barely looked at her notes, just passionately exhorted the listeners to be renewed in their zeal for reaching the lost.
Afterwards, the President of the Association, Dr. Nancy Rummel, introduced herself and asked Sharon what her plans were after college. She encouraged Sharon to consider studying theology, and suggested her alma mater, Wheaton College. She even mentioned the Association’s Scholarship program and said that Sharon was a good candidate and should apply. Sharon beamed. She floated home on the greyhound bus as if she was in a cloud. It was late when she got home, and only Carol was awake to greet her.
“Mom, you would not believe how cool it was,” Sharon said, dropping her bags and hugging her mother. After the embrace, Carol re-wrapped her bathrobe and then locked the front door.
“Shhh… the boys are sleeping,” Carol said. “Your dad has to preach in the morning.”
“Where’s Stacey?” Sharon asked, as they went into the kitchen and softly shut the door behind them.
“At Jessica’s for the night,” Carol said. She pulled out a chair and gestured to it. “Tell me everything. Want some hot cocoa?”
“Yes, please!” Sharon said, settling into the chair. “It was just so cool,” she said again. “Dr. Rummel was amazing.”
“He’s the head of the whole thing?” Carol asked, pulling out two mugs.
“No, she’s a woman,” Sharon said. “And yes, she’s the president but she also teaches at Houghton College in New York.”
“New York City?” Carol asked, shaking two packets of chocolate powder. Sharon wrinkled her nose.
“I don’t think so, Mom. I’m pretty sure Houghton is somewhere closer to Buffalo.” She wasn’t sure, but she knew her mother didn’t think anything good came out of New York City. “Anyway, she really liked my speech, and she talked to me awhile- she said that I would probably qualify for the IFCS scholarship! Mom, I really want to go visit Wheaton. I think it would be amazing.”
“Wheaton?” her mother said. “Like the university?”
“Wheaton College, Mom. It’s right here in Illinois, outside of Chicago. Hardly three hours away! I looked.”
“Is it a Christian college?”
“Yes, of course, mom.”
“But it’s probably real expensive.”
“Well…” Sharon got up to get the kettle, which was starting to steam. She was quiet a minute while she pulled out the drawer for a potholder, turned off the stovetop, and brought the kettle over to the table. She poured both the mugs full and then set the kettle back on the stove, and then sat again. “Yes,” she finally said. She put her hand on her mom’s. “Okay, it’s not cheap. But I can get scholarships. I can. And there’s federal aid, and… I can get a job. A lot of students work while they go to school.”
“How much?” Carol said. Sharon swallowed, and then told her.
Carol put a hand to her chest. “Sharon! That’s more than half the price of this house! For one year?”
“Yes, mom, but…”
“I just don’t see how it makes sense, Sharon! I mean think of it! What about when you get married? What if you want to stay at home? How is your husband supposed to pay for all those loans?”
“I’m not married yet, mom! And we can figure it out!”
“It just feels foolish,” Carol said, shaking her head. She reached out and took her daughter’s hand. “I know you like to study, but you have to think of college as an investment. I mean that in the realest way. If you’re going to put money after school, you have to know there’s a job on the other end that will pay it off. You can’t just rack up all that debt because you like reading books.”
“I know, mom,” Sharon said softly. She was quiet for a moment, and then she shrugged a little and smiled. “It was just an idea.”
“Well, I’m sorry we don’t have more money to spoil you like that,” Carol said. “I know you’d be the top wherever you go, your dad and I both think so. You’re a very smart girl, you know that, Sharon. We’re very proud of you.”
Carol looked at her daughter and felt a little bad for having deflated her wonderful trip so much. But what else could she say? She had to be honest about the way the world works. But it was so hard. You wanted to educate your daughters and let them pursue things- but what if they turned out to be homemakers? You couldn’t saddle them and their future family with all that debt. It was too risky.
But then, Carol thought, what if Sharon didn’t marry? She had never had a real boyfriend through her high school years, though Stacey always had someone on the line. Was she not interested? She was always conservative and modest in dress, like her parents had encouraged. Not very interested in hair and makeup like Stacey was- (so naturally able to make even her sister’s hand-me-downs look trendy and cute.) Carol thought again about this woman Doctor who was the head of the student organization. What was she like? Was she feminine? For just a moment Carol had a horrid flash of a life where her daughter would be some kind of short-haired woman clergy member with a white collar like Gary’s aunt Deb. She shuddered. The liberal ways were always trying to get your kids, she thought.
“Best get to bed,” she said to Sharon. “We don’t want to miss church in the morning. Your dad will be glad to see you back.”
Carol’s terrible vision didn’t come true. She and Gary took Sharon to visit Davis College, a small bible college in Missouri, a few hours south of them and a world away from Chicago. It was a little campus in the middle of cornfields where the only textbook was the Bible, and the tuition was priced right for even the poorest student.
“You can put that away working at the IGA this summer,” Gary said while they were on the way home. “Easy as pie.”
Sharon didn’t seem thrilled about it, though. She talked about living at home and attending the State College nearby for nursing, or maybe even pre-med.
“Go to Davis first,” Gary encouraged her. He put an arm around her. “It’s good for you to get away from home. Have a little fun and make friends in the dorm, get a real good bible education like you wanted. When you get done, you can go for nursing or something if you still want to. But if you happen to meet Mr. Right while you’re there, all the better!”
“Dad!” Stacey said with a smile from the couch where she was leafing through a magazine. “Don’t tease her like that!”
“Why shouldn’t I?” Gary said, ruffling Sharon’s hair. “It’s my number one goal, seeing all my children happily married.” Sharon smiled at him and sank onto the couch next at her sister’s feet.
“And what’s your number two goal?” Keith asked. Gary grinned and raised his eyebrows.
“Getting you installed as pastor after me.”
“Oh, dad, not that,” Keith said with a half-smile. “How about when I qualify for the Olympic trials in the Freestyle?”
“You’d have to win at school first,” Sharon said, throwing a pillow at her brother.
“Oh, snap!” Stacey said, but Keith just laughed it off.
So Sharon went off to Davis that fall, with a hundred pretty purple things her mother bought to set up her dorm room, and a hundred and fifty hugs from her mother and sister. She started classes with the same fastidiousness that had helped her excel in her years in school- but this time was different. She seemed to find friction. She applied herself diligently to every essay and assignment, aced almost every test and was eager to join in discussion and student ministries and services. She checked every box and followed every rule, but things didn’t work the same way they always had for her.
Her essays were sent back marked and crossed through and with copious red-inked comments on the side. She was often dismissed in class with a “let’s hear from someone other than Miss Wilson.”
The second month of classes, she was placed on the student advisory committee, as secretary, by the staff. The president and other officers were all men. After four meetings, she asked to be released, stating that she was nothing more than a transcriber for the boys’ conversation. She felt disregarded and unheeded.
“That’s not the role of the secretary according to Robert’s Rules of Order,” she complained to the Dean. “They hardly ever even let me get a word in edgewise, and recently they were discussing whether I should even have a vote.”
“Well, we don’t exactly follow Robert’s,” the Dean said. “You’re really there to keep a record and to be a gentle feminine presence to remind the fellows to stay orderly.”
At Thanksgiving and Christmas breaks, Sharon asked her parents to let her quit. She felt she didn’t fit in. She had made a few girl friends, but not close ones, and much of her freetime she had spent alone. Too much of it crying. Gary clapped her on the back and told her to hang in there for her one year certificate.
“This next semester is only until Easter,” he said. “It’ll fly by.”
At Easter, when they came to pick her up after graduation, Sharon told them she had applied to the State College for the fall. They were loading her things into the back of the van.
“You mean MCC?” Carol asked. “The junior college?” It was right near their church, and had the nursing program they had talked about.
“No, Illinois State, in Bloomington.”
“But that’s more than an hour away,” Gary said. “You can’t commute that everyday.”
“I know,” Sharon said, packing her big purple duvet into the crevice beside her suitcase. “I’m going to live in the dorms.”
“Over my dead body!” Gary said, a little too loudly. A few of the other families in the parking lot looked their way. Gary leaned in, his cheeks turning red, and whispered. “Over my. Dead. Body.”
“I already paid the application fee and was awarded financial aid. I qualify for everything, Daddy. You don’t have to pay a thing.”
“PAY a thing?!” Gary exploded, barely containing his rage, but with one eye on the alarmed woman two rows over who was obviously tuned into the whole thing, he took Sharon sharply by the elbow and led her back into the grey building and turned into a study room off the main hallway. Carol put her head down and continued packing things into the van, praying quietly beneath her breath.
“How dare you insinuate this is about money, missy,” he said, when they were behind the closed door. Sharon crossed her arms and sat down on the edge of the study table. “Why in the world would you think it would be appropriate to go to a… a.. state college, a secular university and live in a dorm where who-knows-what happens? Do you even know what kinds of things happen in stage college dorms?” His face was bright red, and the white-grey hairs on his eyebrows and temples seemed to emphasise it to Sharon. He looked so much older since she had moved away from home.
But then, Gary and Carol had been through a lot that year. The small congregation where they pastored had dealt with a few frustrating and painful conflicts which had aged the couple. Carol had discovered a small lump, which had been removed, and seemed to be at bay, but it took a toll. And then there was Keith.
He was heading into eighth grade, and already had quite a few catastrophes behind him. The previous fall he had wrecked on an ATV, breaking his collarbone and leaving him with two black eyes. After New Years, he had been at a sleepover with some friends, and the five of them had “borrowed” one of their father’s trucks for a joyride, which ended in getting pulled over and brought home by the sheriff. They had all been fined. It was now the end of the school year, and because of his low grades, he had been taken off the school baseball team on probation. He could have brought his grades up, but he and a fellow outcast had decided to “pay back” the coach by coating his car with shaving cream. They had intended it to be a semi-harmless prank, but it had worn away the paint from the new vehicle, and cost almost $2000 to repaint it. Because of it, he had been suspended from school for 2 weeks and had been permanently removed from sports for the rest of the year.
Gary had been through enough. He wasn’t about to watch his oldest daughter leave to a life of sin and debauchery, won away to the world’s temptations. He told her what-for for almost half an hour, while Carol finished bringing down the rest of Sharon’s things, swept out her room, and left the key on the desk at the RA’s office.
When Gary and Sharon came out of the room, they were both quiet. They drove home in relative silence, as Carol tried to keep the mood light with a little chatter and by playing some Christian radio drama that the girls had always loved.
But Sharon went to Illinois State.. Over the summer she gently talked to her parents- reminding them that she was a believer and wasn’t going to walk away from the Lord. She showed them the Christian Student Alliance brochure and assured them that she was only going for nursing- like they had suggested to her earlier. Reminded them over countless dinner conversations that the in-state tuition was a good investment, and if she did have children, nursing was a perfect career because it had a flexible schedule and was one of the highest-paying things you could do with a two year degree.
Eventually she wore them down, and they signed the papers she gave them. She put together her things at the end of August and got a ride from a friend who had gone away to the U the year before. Her pretty purple dorm room things were a little worn from the year before, but she wasn’t worried. Her mom hugged her goodbye at the front door and said it was too bad that it was the same weekend that Gary was taking Stacey off to Davis.
Stacey was married a year later, in the late summer, to a young man who was called to be a pastor. He was tall and kind and ticked all the Wilson’s boxes. The two of them went down to the Carolinas so he could take a position as an Associate Pastor.
Keith finished two years of high school before choosing to take the tech course for welding. When he was 17, he told his parents that he had heard they were hiring guys in Montana at twice the hourly rate he was making on his part-time job. They tried to persuade him to finish his tech program, but he insisted he was ready and went off. He worked there three years before he came back home to live, but when he did, he was a changed man. He was softer and had filled out a lot- looked a lot like Gary. He had seen a few accidents on his job site- it seemed to mellow him.
At 21, he married a young woman who had attended their congregation her whole life. They had three boys in a row and for a little while they lived in Gary and Carol’s basement while they struggled, but eventually Gary gave them the downpayment and co-signed on a mortgage so they could have a place of their own.
When he was 30, he stopped his dad after church one day, while holding his baby daughter.
“Dad,” he said. “I know you’ve been looking for someone to take over the youth pastor position. I wondered what you’d think if I did it.” Gary smiled and said he had been waiting to hear that for a long, long time.
Sharon began the nursing program, but found that she enjoyed her psychology course the most. Although she knew it would require an additional degree and an increased financial debt load, she eventually changed her major and began working towards the goal of being a licensed therapist. She worked odd jobs and sometimes had to take time off, but eventually she graduated with a Masters and began her clinical work in the city of Chicago. She has a thriving practice and most days is very happy. But her parents still pray for her, their lost sheep.