The Places You Will Go
The Places You Will Go
September 10, 2017
When I was a sophomore in high school, I was called up to pitch for the varsity baseball team. This was a very uncomfortable move. I left my peers and the relatively carefree life of being on the j.v. team behind. That was replaced with teammates who really didn’t want me on their team. As I’ve mentioned on a previous Sunday, it also left me with a teammate’s mom heckling me from the stands because every time I pitched it meant her son was not.
All this discomfort came to a head late in the season in a state tournament game. We had played this team earlier in the season. In that game, one of their players slid hard into second base. So, as soon as the runner stood up and dusted himself off, our second baseman punched him flush in the jaw. The player was carried off the field and taken to the hospital where his broken jaw was wired shut. Now, we were playing those guys again.
Our coach figured it would be a good idea to start “the pastor’s kid” since he knew that I wouldn’t start anything. (Earlier in the season he had yelled at me because I wasn’t willing to throw at batters. Now, apparently, this was a virtue!) The game was close. There were no incidents to speak of until late in the game. Both teams were “jawing” at one another. The game ended. (We won.) The other team met us at home plate, shook our hands, and then began swinging. Eventually, everyone except one of the umpires and me were brawling. Someone got hit with a bat. Someone got spiked in the head. It was awful.
It was also the end of my time on that team. I came home and told my parents what happened. Then, I told them that I didn’t want to ever put on that baseball uniform again. Instead, I wanted to box my bike up, buy a bus ticket and ride that bus across the state and join the Register’s Annual Bike Ride Across Iowa, known now as RAGBRAI. To my shock, they said, “Yes!” The adventure was on!
I made a ton of mistakes—like blowing up my tire and leaving myself deaf for a while, all because I didn’t want to spend money on a tire gauge. I also had the time of my life! The man who became my riding partner turned out to be a drummer for a well-known rock band who could quote Shakespeare endlessly. We rode and camped and met amazing people in each small town. We thought the group was huge—400 people! Now, thousands and thousands of people ride this ride. For me, though, that feeling of freedom in that wide open countryside has stayed with me forever.
A year later, that adventure was eclipsed by my experience as an A.F.S. student. When you apply, you agree if you are selected to go to any of 60 countries in the world. There are all sorts of interviews. My first shock was that I was accepted. My second shock was that I was going to Japan. Again, to my parents credit, they were 100% supportive. As always, I would make plenty of mistakes. As with any good adventure, it would be really uncomfortable at first. And yet, it was the next adventure of my life. The experience changed my perspective and changed me. And I met an amazing person, my friend, Joe, who has been my friend for 40 years since.
I think of these adventures—these journeys— and I can’t help but think of moving from college in small town Minnesota—the safest place on earth —to the south side of Chicago. Nothing was familiar. Nothing was comfortable. Nothing (and no one) resembled anything (or anyone) I had known in Northfield. However, though I wasn’t on a bike and I hadn’t boarded a single plane, I was on an even greater adventure: seminary. Who knew where this would lead? Who knew what this would really be like? What I did know, at the end of orientation, was that I wanted to get to know that young woman, Tracy, better! (This week, we celebrate our 33rd anniversary!)
There are these moments in life when a new chapter unfolds. Sometimes, we see it coming. Sometimes, what we think is about to happen isn’t what is about to happen, at all. Sometimes, we plan and prepare like crazy for what’s ahead. Sometimes, we just get blindsided. However it happens, life changes: we get married; we have a child; we change jobs; we go to that exotic place that we have always wanted to see. We take risks. Things change as a result, including who we know ourselves to be. And yet, sooner or later, we look back on those changes and we see the common thread, as well. In each chapter, with each set of changes, we see the self whom we have been all along, just highlighted in different ways by the challenges that are present in each era.
Change is almost always uncomfortable. Who hasn’t tried to get ready to go on vacation and wondered at some point if this was even worth it? Who hasn’t had that first day in college, or that first day on a new job, or that first day into a challenging physical experience and thought: “I have made a horrible mistake!” Who hasn’t felt doubt and discomfort and anxiety on the front end of some transition?
And yet, it all comes down to that moment. It is our ancestors in faith in the moment when they have to decide, “Are we going to be slaves forever or are we going to choose freedom and maybe die in the wilderness as a result?” It is Peter, when he sees Jesus walking on the water, standing on the side of the boat with one leg dangling over the water, finding the courage to take that step. It is any of us in a moment of change, no matter how well we have prepared or how thoroughly we have been blindsided, standing and knowing that if we take this step, there is no going back. It is a moment that requires courage and trust and faith. It is the moment when, mostly figuratively, but occasionally, literally, we reach one hand out into the dark and dare to move forward.
This is the moment when Jesus appears to the disciples. They are just doing their jobs: fishing and minding their boats and their nets. Everything is familiar. They feel competent. They are actually quite content. And then that voice calls to them: “Follow me!” They have a decision to make. If they go, everything will change. If they go, people will be disappointed. If they go, who knows where they will be led? There is no way to go without leaving people and things behind. And yet, immediately, they leave. The very best of who they had always been would be projected in a new light. They would never be the same. They had the courage and the faith and the trust to make that choice. When Jesus called, they followed him.
Twenty-three years ago, when I started at this church, I came to be the Christian educator. It was a part-time, fun position. It was a chance to dabble in something that mattered to me. Then, through a convoluted set of circumstances, things changed in the position that I considered my primary work (as a pastoral psychotherapist). Then, through another convoluted set of circumstances, things changed here. All of a sudden, I was on a walk with a person from the pastoral search committee who stopped walking, looked me in the eye and said, “You know, Mark, we’ve been talking in the committee and we think we’ve found the right candidate. We think it is you.”
In the old Rocky movies, there was always the bell that sounded when the hour had arrived. “Bong!” This is it! “Bong!” Pay attention! “Bong!” Focus! Now is the time! This is the moment!
If you listen very carefully, I think you can hear that bell tolling this morning. When I first came here, everything was crisis management. I had a gracious moderator—Borge Smidt—who used to tell me two things: “We have such wonderful people here!” and “They haven’t nailed the doors shut, yet!” Every Trustee’s meeting felt like it might just be the last. And yet, like Rocky, himself, with each “round” that passed and we were still standing, the stronger we felt. We made mistakes. We met some great people. We learned a lot about ourselves.
The bell tolled again when the decision was made to hire a second pastor. No one was grilled harder than Tracy in the interviews. In the end, though, it was an act of faith, a decision which led to a far stronger education program, an enriched worship life, and work trips that would transform not just the lives of those we helped in Missouri but the lives of those who participated, too. We’ve made a few mistakes. We’ve met some great people. We’ve learned a lot about ourselves.
Today, if you listen very carefully, you will hear the bell tolling once again. Thanks to the generosity of so many people in sharing their time and their talents and their money, we are entering a new chapter. This year, we will build a new manse. This will insure that our pastors will live in our community for years to come. The prerequisite of almost everything that is good that has happened in my tenure is that I live here, that I run into people, that I can get to people who need help fast. We will make mistakes. We will meet some great people. We will learn a lot about ourselves.
This year, we will build a beautiful courtyard. This will be a sacred, welcoming space where we can have our coffee hour on a nice day, where we can worship outside when we want, where your son or your daughter might one day get married. This space will deepen our life together! We will make mistakes. We will meet some great people. We will learn a lot about ourselves.
This year, we will continue to grow. Our outreach work will grow deeper and even more “hands on.” We will have the chance to learn and laugh together. We will continue to plan more and panic less, to anticipate needs and respond to them strategically, to hear God’s calling to become even more of the church God calls us to be. We will throw ourselves into that task. We will make mistakes. We will meet some great people. We will learn a lot about ourselves.
Let’s enjoy the adventure together!