Tuesday, April 19, 2016

We Are Not Chips of Wood Drifting Down the Stream of Time

Indulge me if you will to be a little revealing and vulnerable with you.

It’s a big world out there and sometimes it seems to be getting away from me. As I age I cannot help but wonder what it all has meant and means and where I might have taken different steps along the way.

When I was a boy I wanted to be a doctor. I thought it would be the neatest thing ever to be able to walk into a room wearing a starched white lab coat and look into someone’s throat or ears or listen to their heart with a stethoscope and say, I know what’s wrong. And then I’d help them get well.

It was a boyhood dream I suppose but as I moved through school I didn’t think I had the brains to do all of the science and math and physiology and chemistry that was required. And I didn’t really have anyone to convince me otherwise.

I had other dreams: becoming a professional baseball player running the bases in Yankee Stadium; a lawyer successfully defending the innocent wrongly accused; a teacher filling students with visions of their own enchanting feats of glory. There were people in these professions I admired and I thought what they did was remarkable and perhaps I could do it too.

In college I decided I wanted to be a broadcast journalist and eventually a TV anchor. I sailed through my speech classes and loved debate, Radio and Television production, On Air interviews, and reading the news on the university radio station. It all felt so natural.

Then I gave all of that up to enter the ministry. The reasons for that are somewhat complicated. I’m not sure I even now fully understand all of them myself. My family background was a huge influence. My parents. The church I attended. The girl I loved, not because that’s what she wanted but because I felt I had to give her up to do God’s Will. I had some fatal attraction with guilt and fear, with the terror that if I didn’t do this I would somehow be disobeying God and family and the church and, I don’t know, the whole world. Any thought of what I wanted got lost in the drama of saving souls.

Religious indoctrination can be such a controlling force. I wanted to help people, do something meaningful with my life, and somehow the ministry began to be the only place where I thought I could do that. Plus there was just all of that heavy guilt from the church and from within myself about doing what God was calling me to do.

I graduated college, became licensed and ordained, and then led a small country congregation barely into my twenties. I had no idea what I was doing. Seminary would come a few years later. About all I had going for me was that I was sincere and I cared about people. The Bible was a huge mystery to me. Complex, contradictory, rambling. Abraham was told to sacrifice his son. What was that all about? I didn’t have a son. I wasn’t even married. But I’d never do such a thing no matter who told me to do it. Jonah runs away from preaching and ends up inside a whale? You didn’t have to be a heathen to wonder about that one. The plagues and the penalties and the pleading of the innocent who got slaughtered anyway because, well, it was God’s Will and they did something to offend him. I spent years trying to understand any of that.

I often identify with Jake Entwhistle, the lead character in Roland Merullo’s beautiful, funny novel, “A Little Love Story.” In a moment of raw self-assessment trying to figure out where his life got altered he explains: “I felt I was drawing close to that age, that place in life, where you realize one day what you’d told yourself was a Zen detachment turns out to be naked fear. You’d had one serious love relationship in your life and it had ended in tragedy, and the tragedy had broken something inside you. But instead of trying to repair the broken place, or at least really stop and look at it, you skated and joked. You had friends, you were a decent citizen. You hurt no one. And your life was somehow just about half of what it could be.”

Who doesn’t have regrets? I suppose we all can look back and think, Gosh, why did I follow that path? Why did I marry that person? Why did I take that job or pursue that career? Or, why didn’t I have a clearer picture of who I was and what I wanted to be?

“We are not chips of wood,” writes Garrison Keillor, “drifting down the stream of time. We have oars.”

What a gorgeous piece of wisdom that is that every young person needs to carry in their heart. Our oars are our gifts, unique to us, talents and capacities to be who we are most competent to become. If we just drift we give our beautiful lives to the influence of others and that may carry us to places we never on our own would have chosen.

I had a wonderful career as a minister in spite of my ambivalence about being one. But it all ended abruptly with a failed marriage and a flawed religious denomination built on ideal lives not broken ones and on my own scary drifting afterwards.

Perhaps I could have been a physician after all. Perhaps I would be ending a career as a network news anchor. I’ll never know. I left the oars in the boat instead.

© 2016 Timothy Moody

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