Existentialism has been defined as, “the philosophical and cultural movement which holds that the starting point of philosophical thinking must be the experiences of the individual.” I’m no Existentialist, as defined, but as a good Wesleyan I do believe that our philosophical and theological experiences must be evidenced in personal experience. There must be an eighteen-inch connection between our hearts and our heads. We are not “head-trip” Christians devoid of real world real-time experience with God. We are the people of empirically sensed “strangely warmed” hearts.
Tomorrow, October 23, is my 57th birthday, and that fact has me pondering my existence and calling. Life has never been a bed of roses for me, and it isn’t now. The events of this summer with losing in the episcopal election were daunting, yet I am fine. My back isn’t what it used to be as I have started the Christmas sprint in pottery making for all of the Columbia District Clergy, everyone in the UM Center, the Cabinet, and, of course, myriad family members. Conducting Charge Conferences back-to-back-to-back has been wonderful but exhausting, especially as I’m pondering potential pastoral moves as I discern the sense of those gathered for these important meetings. As Cabinet Secretary I have been busy creating and updating every piece of information to be used by all the District Superintendents in the appointment process and S/PPRC training. Heck, I’m tired from just dealing with the secular election process. There have been times where I have thought about doing harm to my telephone if I receive one more robo-call.
I am sure that many of you are going through much worse and your faith has been tested in far more serious ways, but on this birthday-eve I’m reflecting on my particular and peculiar life. My Mother was 40 and my Daddy was 41 when I was born. Mother wasn’t even sure she was pregnant, and didn’t go to the doctor until a month before my arrival. As a teenager who stressed out my older parents, I unfortunately overheard them upon occasion discussing my very existence. Several times I heard Daddy say to my Mother, “You didn’t want him,” and my mother replied, “If I didn’t want him, I wouldn’t have had him.” On one hand hearing this affirmed that I was a deliberate choice, but on the other hand the very discussion of my being born did not add to my sense of worth. Gosh, to keep my two much older brothers from doing me physical harm, my parents allowed them the privilege of naming me. Carlee wisely gave me the name “William,” after my Mother’s father. Ralph, on the other hand, gave me the name “Timothy,” after the name of the bear in the Dick and Jane books. I guess it could have been worse with something like “Puff” or “Spot.”
Now hear me out, I knew that was loved and appreciated, but I also often felt like a literal afterthought. One of the first serious books that ever helped me name this inner struggle between worth and worthlessness was Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage. As a fifth-grader it came at a pivotal time in my life. Compounding existing issues concerning my self-worth was the fact that in the third grade I had encephalitis, an extremely dangerous illness. Statisticians say that 50% of its sufferers die and 80% have permanent brain damage. Whether the latter is true or not about me is up to you, but it did put me behind in school. Unfortunately I was also one of the youngest in my class with a birthday less than a week from the next grade’s cut-off. My current hearing loss is also a direct result of this awful illness.
As a youth, to compound things, either due to encephalitis or not, I also had a difficult time saying a “th” sound and earned the ignominious nickname of “Fim” in place of “Tim” because of it. I do know that much of my memory before the age of eight is simply blocked out due to the high fever that I had. If it weren’t for my dear Aunt Florence tutoring me in the fifth grade I would never have caught up in school. She also re-taught me how to tell time and tie my shoes, abilities evidently erased by my illness. There were plenty of deficiencies I ingeniously compensated for until her tutoring. However, before you begin to think that I wasn’t all that bright to begin with, some of you might need to be reminded of my Magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa credentials. Sometimes we overdo in life to prove to others why we should have been born or continue to exist.
But, it was The Red Badge of Courage that first helped me turn the corner inside my own head about my unique personhood. The book’s hero, Henry Fleming, was an anti-hero of sorts, a boy too young to have to face war and maiming. Henry Fleming was real. I could identify with him. He went through the stages of being scared, a deserting coward, cocksure in false bravado, gutsy under fire, and, in the end, he became a wise veteran who knew that the golden sunlight of peace was a better goal than a red badge of combat. He had earned his stripes, in a very real sense. As for me, I still run the gamut of all these stages. At least Henry Fleming remains a model of someone who survived tenuous times of doubt and fear and made it, despite all of his emotional and physical scars.
The biggest redemptive moment in my life occurred when I fully gave my life to Christ as a sophomore in high school. At that precipitous hinge-point of adolescence, between defining moments of either being cool or vilified, I heard and felt the Gospel. I recognized for the first time that God had always been with me, and had set me apart for joyful obedience. Beyond my feeble attempts to articulate it, I experienced a real relationship with Jesus that has sustained me ever since.
So here I am on my birthday-eve, thankful for the faithfulness of God through thick and thin, lean and abundant years, and all the vicissitudes of life. I can wake up in praise more than fear because God is God and that hope inspires another day of service from this inadequate, but more-than-conquering servant. Like Henry Fleming in The Red Badge of Courage, I will head back onto the field of warring emotions and hope that it is valor more than duty that calls me, and the Gospel of Christ’s grace more than a desperate endeavor to justify my own existence that inspires me. I will, through Christ, wear the red badge of courage.