Monday, August 8, 2011

That Sinking Feeling

At age 23 I found myself in charge of a massive, two-week day camp run out of an Episcopal Church. It featured over 150 campers, twenty-some paid college students, and multiple volunteers. Making matters more challenging, the program I inherited included over-night camping trips for the boys and then the girls. The year before a volunteer drowned at the overnight and I was determined that this year’s outing would go smoothly. I worked and planned and strategized, but nothing could avert the rude awakening coming my way.

The overnight featured a day canoe trip, camping, a morning paddle, and a finally a three-hour bus trip home. The first day with the boys went well, but the second day not so much. Pulling up to the canoe livery in a bus to take the boys home, I found the owner waiting for me. He was an imposing man, a former All-Pro defensive tackle with the Cleveland Browns. It seems that the boys – led or misled by their counselors – had canoed past their pickup point. To make matters worse, those college-aged leaders had allowed the boys to get so strung out along the river that some were ahead, some were behind, and some were hopelessly lost in the middle. Some boys, tired and hungry, had gotten out of their canoes and walked up to a farmhouse to call their parents. Other boys had gotten off the river and were found hitch-hiking along remote country roads.

As you can imagine, this giant of a man was handing it to me pretty good. “What do you want me to do?” I asked him. “Go take care of your girl campers,” he said, “while I straighten out the mess with your boys.” When I drove up to campsite, the girls had already arrived in their canoes. Their leaders had them in a circle playing games and things were going better than could be expected. But at that very moment, workmen nearby operating a bulldozer knocked over a utility pole sending a live electric wire crashing down within a hundred feet of all our girls. It was then that I uttered a prayer which I have never forgotten, “Oh God, please get us out of this O.K. and I promise never again to attempt something this massive and this foolish.”

I can still recall that sinking feeling in my stomach which accompanied the realization that even my best efforts were not enough to ward off disaster. I imagine it is the feeling Peter must have had as he began to sink in the waters of the Sea of Galilee. I suspect that Joseph too knew this feeling as he sat in the hole, cast down by his older brothers for ratting them out and parading around his favored status. “On no,” both must have thought, “this is not going to end well.”

I have been reading a book by Donald Capps called The Decades of Life in preparation for an adult education class in September. In the book, Capps examines Erik Erickson’s life cycle model where certain conflicts take place at different ages of our life. They begin at a certain age, but are revisited throughout life. If Erickson were to examine today’s readings about Joseph and Peter, and if he were to ponder the fiasco of the camping trip I led, I think he would reflect on them in light of Initiative vs. Guilt. Erickson holds that this conflict first arises in preschoolers and Capps adds that it seems to reemerge in our twenties (the age I was, Joseph may have been approaching, and Peter might have been).

It is in our twenties that we become self-starters and begin to take action without being urged by others. The twenties seem to be a time to test and try our sense of initiative. It is an age when we can no longer sit back passively and wait for life to come to us. We must strike out on our own and begin to make our way in the world. It can be an exciting time of great daring. Think about Peter. He initiated the idea to walk out on the water to Jesus. True, he asked for permission, but it was his idea and his alone.

If you think about it, perhaps you initiated your most adventurous undertakings in your twenties. There are at least two reasons why this happens. First, while we have initiative, we do not possess yet a full awareness of our own particular gifts and skills. We think we can take on the world and don’t fathom how we are uniquely qualified to take on only certain parts of it. The other reason we are so open to attempt big things in our twenties is that we don’t fully appreciate how circumstances might work against us. I am not sure how old Robert Burns was when he wrote that the best laid plans of mice and men often go astray, but I am willing to bet it was well after his twenties. At this age we dare great things, often times not fully understanding ourselves and being somewhat naive as to the ways of the world.

There is an old Peanuts cartoon where Charlie Brown finds Sally making two lists; one very short and the other very long. “What are you doing,” he asks her. “I am making two lists of all the things I have learned in life,” she answers. “Why are they different sizes,” he inquires. “Well,” says Sally, “this long list is all the stuff I learned the hard way.”

Erickson held that the great conflict of this stage is between initiative and guilt. The idea of initiative carries with it the inevitability that one will make mistakes, have errors in judgment, and fail to achieve the outcome desired. Joseph didn’t understand the consequences of putting himself at the head of the family parade and usurping the rightful place of his brothers. Peter thought that if Jesus could do it, he could too. I imagined that I could control all the variables through proper planning and clear communication, regardless of my untested abilities at planning and communicating.

We try new things and sometimes we fail. Erickson states that out of such experiences we begin to develop a conscience marked more and more by the ability to engage in self-observation, self-guidance, and self-punishment. In other words, we develop the capacity to direct, evaluate, and correct ourselves. Our next initiative will be a little different from the last, marked by the seeds of insight that become ours as we ask what about what I tried went well and what about it did not.

Each Sunday morning the Church invites us to confess our sins, to name things done and left undone. Sometimes what we confess arises from our own willfulness – we knew what we ought to do, but didn’t want to do it – but many other times what we confess emerges from the inevitability that when we try we sometimes fail. Knowing that we can be forgiven gives us the permission to try again; to initiate anew, but this time more self-aware and savvy.

Now in my early fifties, I want to report that I still get that sinking feeling from time to time, though not as often. It happens when I screw up or when events beyond my control turn for the worse. I am better now at figuring my way out and I am better at turning to God to discern how God might guide me. I am better about owning up to my failures, asking for forgiveness, and accepting that I am forgiven.

When his brothers threw him down in that hole, Joseph’s life literally bottomed out. But it was also a turning point for him – a place to access all that he had done that contributed to his predicament. He would sink again in life, several times in fact. But he learned something in that hole. He learned how to endure and emerge better for the experience. Years later he would reflect that what his brothers had intended as evil God used for good.

Peter too learned from his walk on the water. Sure, he would fail again, but after this it was always related to being a rock – a figure trying to figure out how to lead the early church. Never again would he fail on an initiative as sketchy walking on water.

I believe God sides with those who try and has limited use for those who, because of failure, fail to ever try again. I want to leave you with a brief poem by the welsh poet R.S. Thomas that describes how God is with us as we take initiative in life and things do not turn out as we hoped:

When we are weak, we are
strong. When our eyes close
on the world, then somewhere
within us the bush
burns. When we are poor
and aware of the inadequacy
of our table, it is to that
uninvited the guest comes.