It’s funny how I measure life according to where I was at a specific time of year. It’s not that there’s anything all that special about October, it’s just that’s the month when so many important things happened in my life, both good and bad.
October was when I scored a conference record in high school football, pulling down eight interceptions in a single season. October is also the month my mom died, just a few weeks after I left to go to college.
October was when I decided to “give my life to Christ,” a phrase I would be loathe to use anymore because it has been so overused in my experience. It was at a Campus Crusade rally at the University of Illinois when something a speaker said made so much sense to me that my decision was instantaneous and passionate. The guy was an older student with great poise and charisma who seemed to be speaking directly to me when he asked if anyone in the crowd felt like they were wandering. Six weeks into my third year of college without any idea what I was be educated for made me ripe for that kind of contemplation. Two semesters of academic probation and an ultimatum from my father probably helped open my mind as well.
It was in October when I landed my first pastor job working with junior high school kids for a big suburban nondenominational church. It was also in October when the senior pastor of my second church job fired me. I was a poor fit, he told me. Apparently so was he. While I was in graduate school earning a seminary degree I heard that he had resigned amid questions over his extravagant travel expenses at church conferences.
At that graduate school campus amid the bright gold oak leaves I first met Sarah, a brilliant woman with straight blonde hair and deep brown eyes and a mouth full of braces. She was in the MBA program. She came into it after almost twenty years working in accounting and finance positions for some heavy hitter companies. She was the number one student in the MBA program, so skilled and coolly analytical that half the professors were afraid of her. A year later, in October, Sarah became my wife. Six years later, also in October, Sarah died.
Two years and nine days after Sarah’s heart beat for the last time I was standing on the deck of a 65-foot sail cruiser in the Bahamas, preparing for a five-day scuba diving tour. “Welcome aboard the Wind Dancer, folks,” came a southern drawl that seemed out of place for the tropical atmosphere. Make sure that ya'll getchur gear stowed below and then toss your bags back on the dock. We don’t need to take up any extra space with empty bags. In case ya'll hadn’t noticed, this ain’t a luxury cruise ship and that little berth of yours below is all the space ya get for ya'll and your stuff.”
“You really need an adventure,” my boss had told me. I needed something, I thought. There was a lot of emptiness and deadness in me, that I would admit. It showed in work and my boss was patient but not stupid. His suggestion was more of an assignment. “Living on a boat for five days isn’t going to be the least bit comfortable,” I protested, “How’s that supposed to improve my spirit?”
“Adventures aren’t supposed to be comfortable,” he said, “Whatever obstacles you overcome in this experience will translate into an ability to overcome obstacles in your spiritual life as well. I just know it.”
I wasn’t convinced. I was tempted to resign. It’s not like I really needed the job. Sarah had been a great provider in our marriage. Even though that rankled my pride and caused my more than my share of survivor’s guilt the fact was that I could go without a job for a long time without too much concern.
It was even my growing disdain for all things church. After spending most of my adult life working in ministry in one way or another I was losing hope that the church, that any church, could really make any difference in the world. People in our church argued about trivial things like the color of flowers in the lobby and they grumbled about things over which they had no control like the sexual orientation of teacher at the junior high school. The senior pastor of the church boasted about growth and laid out grand plans for more all the while cajoling the people in the seats on Sundays to pray about giving more of their time and money to “God’s great battle.” I was increasingly cynical in private and in public more and more silent, not wanting to offend anyone.
But my boss, the executive pastor, had called it right on the head, it was my relationship with God that showed the greatest strain. Doubts I wouldn’t dare admit to anyone echoed in my head daily. After all the grief counseling and all the prayer and multiple solitude retreats since Sarah’s death I felt nothing of the passionate, visceral awareness of God that had marked my younger years. In fact, I really felt nothing much of anything. If God was real, He wasn’t talking to me.