Before I started to write here, I had written something on almost every other chapter in this series. How do you talk about what you have lived for? Who really knows that? The whole point in the movie, “It’s A Wonderful Life” is that George Bailey is unhappy because he planned to live a certain life and he is pushing middle age and he has lived none of that life. He believes he has been cheated out of his real life. He has in fact, lived a truly wonderful life of genuine service to others. Because of him the place he lives is not the wretched honky-tonk town it would have become without his two-bit building and loan association, an institution dedicated to the proposition that every person deserves to own his or her own home. But that was his father’s dream, not his. The old Granville house and the big family were his wife’s dream, not his.
Until Uncle Billy lost the daily deposit, George had always just scraped by, never having to face head-on his personal, internal misery. It was not until he was about to go to jail for something he had never “lived for,” had never taken on as his own purpose and goal, that George came to wish he had never been born. And only when he received the great gift of seeing his own town and its people with just one seemingly small change, his complete absence from their lives, only then could he find out the value of what he had been doing for all those years. Only then could he discover what and whom he loved and how widely, greatly and dearly loved he was.
C. S. Lewis once wrote, “The great thing, if one can, is to stop regarding all the unpleasant things as interruptions of one’s ‘own’, or ‘real’ life. The truth is of course that what one calls the interruptions are precisely one’s real life – the life God is sending one day by day.”
Every time George started off on his ‘real’ life, he got ‘interrupted’ until he discovered Lewis’ ‘great thing’ one Christmas eve.
It took me a long time to figure out what I should do with my life. Perhaps, because I went a long while not knowing what to do, I thought a lot about “what for?” Mine is not an unexamined life. I have known for at least half my life I wanted to bring real value to other peoples’ lives. I have wanted to motivate and empower others to be everything they could possibly be.
Then one year I discovered the best way for me to reach that goal was to teach. That was a bit of a joke, given I was a lack-luster student at best, with nothing good to show in high school by way of grades in any subject about which I did not care, a C- average student, with A s and B s in history and English, and C s and D s in math, science and Latin.
It was not until I was fifty years old that I was diagnosed with ADD. Back in junior high and even in grade school I knew I could barely bring myself to study anything I did not care about but I had no idea why, or what was really going on in my head. Looking back, I know in class I regularly gave the teacher about 90 seconds in which to interest me before I checked out. No, I was not one of those “bad” kids, the ones who acted up, who could not sit still in their seats. I was a “good” kid. But if the teacher did not grab my attention right away, I was “Spaceman Spiff,” on my way to “the Planet Zork!” (Yes, I totally “got” Calvin and Hobbes. I was that kid, in the morning, missing or nearly missing the school bus every day. I was that kid, in my own world whenever the world around me proved to be one bit boring.)
Of course if you are not with the program you tend to get left behind and after a while I came to know what it was to be put down, to be disrespected. In my case the scars of such discrimination have been largely positive. I became passionate, almost compulsive that no one ever be left behind if I could help it.
I even had my dream job for a short while. I was a corporate trainer in a manufacturing setting. And I had a mandate to develop an educated and self-managed work force. Working with the county Vo-Tech College, I instituted basic skills training in shop math, use of measuring tools and basic blueprint reading but I was also interested in creating a work-force which was self-motivated and required no direct supervision.
Where to start with that? The second shift shipping crew had a reputation for being unmanageable with three foreman trying and failing to supervise them in the previous year. I decided that bunch should be my first self-managed team. I worked with them for months, training them in self-managing skills, in problem solving, goal-setting, conflict resolution, etc. Five months after we started working together their work production had tripled and they were functioning successfully every night without a supervisor. The shipping department manager could hardly believe the change; the ‘bad boys’ of the plant had become his superstar team.
What is more, the word had gotten around and complaints were surfacing in other departments, “Why can’t we have what they’ve got?” Those are the very complaints you hope for in a setting like that. I was launching plans to move the self-managed team program throughout the facility, one unit at a time, when the entire business was bought out by a competitor who shut down my training program and showed me the door a few weeks later. In that job I was working with people who, for the most part, had been left behind by our society. These were the people for whom, like me, school had never been the door to the better jobs and the promised better life of the American Dream. These were exactly the people I had wanted to empower.
I looked for a similar position for the next year and a half but eventually I realized I needed to change my plan. As my friend Alan had noted years before, my greatest single personal interest was biblical studies. However, for a good twenty-five years I had been arguing with God, “No,” I insisted, “I do not want a ‘church job’. I want to demonstrate by example what it means to be a Christian, called to a holy vocation in what most Christians think of as a secular career. I want to bring salt and light into the society, leading by example, not trying to teach people to do what I was not doing myself in society!”
I lost the argument. God closed every door but allowed me to open the window which led eventually to the founding of Studies in Grace in 1999. In a certain sense I know I am still empowering people, giving my students a chance to hear the story of God as they have not heard it before and to begin to discover their place in the larger community, within that greatest, yet unfinished story. That is a very good thing to do. It is much harder, however to be me and never see results. My students internalize what they learn. Outcomes only reveal themselves in their lives sometimes and then only after many months and years when I am usually not around to see them. I am planting seeds, watering and tilling soil but I am nearly never present for the harvest, whatever that may look like.
My hope is that some day my story will be told; not the story as I imagine, remember and tell it but the real story, complete with all its warts and pimples, all about how God was the hero of my story. A part of my story will be, I believe, a decisive clarity like that which the fictitious George Bailey gained when he came to realize how utterly different the world would have been without his life. Some day, I hope, I will get to see “the results” of my efforts and to praise God for the fruit I have born. I have wanted to empower powerless people. I believe I have. I have faith that once all is said and done, I will have said and done some useful things. Some things which God can cleanse and transform to be caught up with every other good thing, and finally lost in praise.
Next week: Insights I have gained in the school of life: into the world, human nature, Jesus Christ, love, religion, prayer.