Friday, October 26, 2007

October 25, 2007 - Showing Up

Woody Allen once quipped that "95% of life is showing up." Today I earn a handsome certificate of merit, just for showing up.

It's my 25th reunion at Princeton Theological Seminary. At the luncheon, I'm called forward to receive an elegantly-printed piece of paper, declaring that the seminary and its Alumni/ae Association "pay tribute to the faithful ministry of Carlos E. Wilton."

Now, in case any of you may be thinking I've just won the ministerial equivalent of a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, let me make it clear that every member of the Class of 1982 received one of these things. There were about eight of us there, out of a class of maybe a hundred or so. All we had to do, to be so honored 25 years after our graduation, was to keep breathing – that, and show up at the reunion.

The 50th reunion class outdid us in that regard. Judging from the number of reserved tables in the dining hall with "1957" placards on them, they had four or five times the number of classmates turn out. Sure, these people are all retired, and have a little more discretionary time to pull up stakes and travel, but I think there's something deeper going on here.

I can tell, from paging through my old student photo directory and recalling the stories I’ve heard, that quite a number of the men and women I graduated with are no longer in parish ministry. Some got caught in the cross-fire of church conflicts. Tired of dodging bullets, they got up one day and simply walked off the field of battle. Others committed ethical lapses of the financial or sexual kind. Still others – many of the bright women who trailblazed their way into seminary in the 1970s and 1980s – discovered that the congregations that welcomed them as earnest young associate pastors weren’t so eager, a few years later, to invite them as seasoned professionals to sit down behind the pastor’s desk. Tired of gazing up at the “stained-glass ceiling,” they left for other occupations. As for the rest of those graduates who are now MIA, I suppose they just drifted away, for whatever reason.

Judging from the number of tables set aside for the Class of 1957, I don't think there are so many MIA ministers in that group. At their graduation, they were pretty much all young men in their twenties, so there was no sexism or ageism to contend with. They started out doing ministry in Eisenhower's America – probably the most congenial time in history for mainline Protestants. True, they persisted through the turbulent sixties and seventies, but the church in that era – while assailed from without – still had plenty of internal momentum to keep it going. By the time the eighties and nineties rolled around, and church-leadership pundits started pontificating about "the end of Christendom" – meaning, by that, the end of the unofficial Protestant establishment in America – these people were already at or slightly past mid-career, so there was little question they would stay the course, no matter how unbreathable the atmosphere seemed to be getting outside the ecclesiastical airlock.

When I think of what I’ve been through, medically, in the past couple of years, I realize how easily I could have become one of the MIA ministers. If my cancer had been of a less easily-treatable form, I might not have been able to jump in the car and drive over to Princeton to pick up my one-size-fits-all, suitable-for-framing certificate.

I suppose I could treat it as my diploma from the School of Cancer. I’m not done with that instruction, by any means – I’m enrolled in a few graduate courses, at the moment – but I feel like I’ve finished with full-time studies for now. (And a good thing it is, too, that I can say that.)

A number of friends at the reunion, from various class years, know of my health situation and ask me about it. A surprising number of them have discovered this blog somehow, and visit it from time to time. After I give them the lowdown on my general condition – how I’m out of remission but in “watch and wait” mode – I find myself saying how much cancer has taught me. It’s true. It’s been one of the most formative experiences of my life (although not one I’d wish on anyone).

No one offers you a certificate of merit when you finish chemotherapy. But, they should.


Anonymous said...

Carl, Still enjoying your blog and marveling at the eloquent writing -you remain humble yet revealing parts of yourself that as a church member one does not often see in their pastor. Often one sees their pastor only in his church capacity and forgets at times that he took is "just a man" who has hardships and joys just as we do. Congratulations on your 25th celebration! Charlene & Harvey

Carlos ("Carl") said...

Thanks, C&H. As always, I appreciate your support.