What are the moments over your years that have made life-changing differences? A crossroads the required a choice that once made, meant one path rather than another. What were the circumstances, the event, the series of happenings that now, looking back, you can see led to a or the moment when a decision made led to your life lived and the emotion, passion, and purpose with which you have lived it up to this moment?
I’m going to make an educated guess, that at least one or two, if not all of those moments have to do with people. Maybe someone new you met, maybe someone you now understand was a mentor as well as a friend who had more influence than you knew at the time. Maybe a person you didn’t know well or at all, but something they said, something you realized they did, made you think about life differently and perhaps expanded your perspective beyond where it had previously ever been.
I visited a colleague from outside our area in the past couple of weeks who has recently come through a life-threatening illness. From the moment I saw her I knew she was different. Part of it was an on-going weakness of body she will have for a long while, and it was deeper than that. There was a resonance or timbre in her voice that I had not heard before. We sat for a short while as her strength would allow, and she both explained and explored for me what she had been through – the total unexpected nature of what happened, the stark likelihood of not getting well, the circumstances and timing of that changing, and the continuing to broaden and deepen reflection of what all that not only means now, but will mean as she continues living into the rest of her life.
When those moments, those circumstances, those experiences occur, we need to tell that story. We need someone to hear us tell that story. In the telling and in the hearing, I very much believe the presence of God’s Spirit makes connections in ways that may not be made otherwise. That connection allows a dynamic that we can’t produce singularly through internal reflection, that is unique to the two people who happen to be sharing that moment and the life experiences they bring. And the most important and foundational element in all of that? The vital, oh so real and uncontrollable dynamic of the power that is beyond us – acknowledged or unacknowledged – God is working for good for us in the most challenging of circumstances when perhaps we may feel most bereft of belief.
The life force that was my friend Jayne, appeared suddenly on a summer camp staff where an accompanist was unable to be present, and I “happened” to be known by a director who asked if I could fill the spot. Jayne, a professional coloratura soprano, would lead a workshop session for young women, some having exposure to opera, many not. During that week she sang for and with them and taught in the spirit of art and beauty and accessibility to that which can lift us to beyond spoken word. In the course of our friendship I watched and witnessed and experienced her great heights of professional and personal success and the difficult and sometimes heartbreaking moments of struggle. And you know what was most miraculous for me? She never stopped risking, and learning, and loving, and pushing limits toward unreasonable but altogether beautiful life and growth. The hard times did not shrink her willingness to embrace the world and take risks and offer her best gifts for and to those around her. In the end, not long after I said goodbye to another dear friend because of ALS, Jayne called and said she had been diagnosed with the same disease. And what is still true, is that she never stopped being Jayne. Wheelchair bound, finally using a computer and eye movement to communicate, she never ever stopped being Jayne – loving and learning and compassionately confronting and generously listening and communicating the truth as she saw it about life and love and work and play and politics and the church and the impossibility of death having the last word. And I am different today, and the story of her life is still being told in the lives of her son and daughter, her sister and brother and extended family, her colleagues and friends and the myriad of audiences who heard her voice lift operatic characters and therefore the self to new heights of being known.
I’m still living the difference she made in the world. I’m not nearly the risk-taker, and yet am less fearful of the future than I otherwise would have been. Our way of talking about faith had some monumental differences, and yet our hearts and belief of that which is good and grace-full and beyond us, were so much the same. Our experiences of the globe were different in quantity and content, and yet the acknowledgement of the deep value as well as the realistic appreciation and stark challenge of global diversity we shared. I yet live out my calling in an albeit dysfunctional and yet still present organized religious system for which she had a heart for but did not hold much hope or optimism. Seemingly so many external differences, yet even more essential and soul-level similarities. Because our paths, I believe by no mistake, crossed at a particular time and place, my life is different, and the conversations we had together in the final six months of her time the most memorable, poignant, and understanding of self I have yet experienced.
There is a depth to life in this world we each have open invitation to experience. Moments and sequences that can take us to new places of learning and growing that are at once exciting, fearful, risky, and so full of possibilities to purpose and value that we do well to embrace even when uncertain. Tell your story, share your vulnerability with another, offer the gift of listening, gift yourself time to reflect and learn, and trust the goodness of God in the most unpredictable nature of life. That which changes and challenges us may just be that which is good for the world.