By Adam Thomas
John Lennon popularized the saying that life is what happens to you when you’re busy making other plans. For followers of Jesus Christ, this isn’t entirely accurate. You see: God usually has plans for us that are fairly different from the ones that we have for ourselves. Our joy as followers of Christ happens when we listen for and then respond to God’s call in our lives. And so, to modify Lennon’s quotation: life is what happens to you when you’re busy allowing your plans to resonate with God’s.
Here’s a snapshot of three times over the last decade of my life that shows my movement from my plans to God’s, a movement that I assure you continues today. (And please, don’t misunderstand – just because God’s plan for me has so far been to become a priest, know that God’s call manifests in myriad other ways, as well.)
January 11, 2001
It is ten years ago, and I am really starting to think long and hard about what my life might look like as an adult. My senior year of high school is half over, and my college applications are finished. The days are approaching when I will hourly test the mailbox’s hinges hoping for a fat letter from Sewanee, my first choice college. The days are long gone when I dreamt of being a part-time firefighter and a part-time paleontologist. With my college letters soon to arrive at my house, it is high time to think about the future, the real future apart from the shiny red engines and dinosaurs’ fossils of childhood. And so, right before I turn eighteen, I type a few paragraphs entitled “What Will I Become?”
I believe that when a student enters his or her freshman year of college, he or she should be open to a vast array of new experiences. From my perspective, having my life planned the minute I graduate from high school is unhealthy. I am not saying that a student should not narrow his or her interests at all, but having a rigid path to walk can become detrimental.
As I prepare for my college education I have envisioned no less than four scenarios, one of which has only begun to fester in my brain. I know I would like to continue writing as I grow older, but I am practical and also know that very few writers succeed. Nevertheless, my first scenario is to major in English and hopefully have something published while I am still attending college. The second is to major in journalism and become a reporter; I would love to work for ESPN, but that is more of a dream than a reality. The third scenario is to go pre-law and attend law school. I have always been interested in the judicial process, but I am not sure I want to be a lawyer.
The fourth scenario, the one that is starting to fester in brain, is to double major in English and political science, and then perhaps still go to law school. I do not think I want to be a politician, but I would consider being someone linked to one. I am in the fledgling stages of an AP United States government class, and it absolutely fascinates me. This last scenario is beginning to excite me because it connects the other three. If I became a speechwriter or press secretary then I would have to use skills from all of my other loves. I would need the communication skills of a journalist, the writing skills of an English major, and the thought processes of a lawyer. […] I have narrowed my mindset some, but I will use the next few years to truly decide what I want to do with the rest of my life.
December 28, 2004
The acceptance letter comes and I pack up for Sewanee. Four years later, I am nearly done with the double major, though music composition has replaced English as one of the pair. Halfway through another senior year, I write again about what I will become, this time in response to an essay question on the application for Virginia Theological Seminary.
At the beginning of the second semester of my senior year of high school, I sat down at my computer and wrote out a list of possible career paths in an attempt to bring some focus to the new world that would soon open up to me. I called the list “What Will I Become?” and it included writer, journalist, lawyer, and speechwriter. With this exercise, I was trying to persuade myself that it was perfectly acceptable not to have my future planned out before I went to college. The piece concluded with this sentence, “I have narrowed my mindset some, but I will use the next few years to truly decide what I want to do with the rest of my life.” A year later, my entire perspective changed.
I was taking a humanities class the second semester of my freshman year at Sewanee, and we read the Confessions of Saint Augustine. I was truly struck by Augustine’s attempt to look back over his whole life and search for God’s movement in it; indeed, the text is one long introspective prayer. Heartened by Augustine’s example, I tentatively began to look inside myself. Over the course of the semester, “what do I want to do with the rest of my life” became “what does God want me to do with the rest of my life.” With this new paradigm, my heart and mind became open to new possibilities—or to what I thought were new possibilities. Upon further reflection, I have discovered that this new and exciting avenue, becoming a priest, is actually the earliest path open to me that I had ignored for years.
You see, my father graduated from seminary when I was six years old, and I grew up in the church. I was never the stereotypical rebellious priest’s kid; on the contrary, I always went to services, but for the first seventeen years of my life, the Word and the liturgy failed to move me. I went to church, I was baptized, I was confirmed. I believed in God through the borrowed faith of my parents. But my own faith was still nascent. The church has caused my family intense pain and overwhelming joy, and throughout my early teenage years I was always on guard in church because the painful times were ever so much more vivid in my mind. I would not allow myself to be hurt again, would not allow myself to become vulnerable; therefore, I would not allow myself to love. People would jokingly ask me if I was “going to follow in my father’s footsteps.” Heck no, I always thought, I know what he has to put up with. The pain that kept my faith locked away also kept me from seeing my true calling.
However, on a Sunday morning in October of 2000, something miraculous happened, something that I have been trying to put into words ever since. But mere words are inadequate when the power of the Living God becomes involved. To put it the best I can, I had a moment with God, in which I felt connected to both the enormity of God’s movement in the world and the intimacy of an intense feeling of personal love…. A little over a year later, with Saint Augustine’s example newly in my mind and this transforming experience of God’s love still reforming my heart, I discerned that I was called to the path that has always been only one step away.
December 3, 2007
Another acceptance letter comes, and I attend seminary. Three years later, during my final senior year, I write again about what I will become, this time within a fortnight of the event when “What will I be” will turn into the “What I am.”
A few weeks ago, I decided to try on the outfit I am planning to wear to my ordination. I unzipped the suit bag and laid out the trousers and jacket. I put on my brand new (quite stiff, still) clergy shirt and collar. Then I added the suit, shoes, and belt. As I approached the mirror, I hesitated. I wasn’t sure who I would see looking back at me. A hand, then an arm, then my body appeared in the reflection. I looked me up and down. I folded my hands. I tried to raise one eyebrow and failed. I unbuttoned the jacket and stuck my hands in my pockets. I smiled. There I am, I thought.
As I approached the mirror, I was afraid that I would not see the me I have always been because I was decked out in the attire of the me I am becoming. But as I assumed a stance, a gesture, a facial expression that are uniquely mine, I realized that the mere trappings of the calling to which I have responded will not override the me that continues to respond to the call. When God called me to the ordained life, God called me. God called a person with both gifts and limitations, both experience and baggage. As I looked at my reflection, I did not see a necessarily better me, but the me that shows outwardly my striving to accept God’s call.
As I thought that, I felt my gut twinge with the same feeling I used to have when a fly ball was hit to me in center field. Go and catch it, my gut used to say. Now it says, Look at the way God has moved in your life. Now what are you going to do about it? In many of the places in the bible where our new translations use the word “heart,” the text really says “gut.” In my gut, I know I am called to serve God because I get that same feeling when I contemplate my future. In my gut, I sense the utter enormity of the One I am called to serve. In that deep place, at the very core of my being, I know that the me I am and the me I am becoming are both the me that God has called. Indeed, God’s call created the me I am.
Three more years, the first three of my ordained life come and go. I sit at my computer reading the words I wrote over the past ten years, and I hear echoes of the person I used to be, echoes that somehow became solid, sunk down into my soul, and now fortify the call that God continues to breathe into my life. Another decade spans out ahead of me: marriage in less than two months, a parish in which to serve God, a PhD, followed, perhaps, by a post helping students learn the art of preaching. Some of these surely are part of God’s plan for me, but, even so, I must not allow my plans to become idols that pull me away from God. I must continue to listen and strive to resonate with God’s call. And I must keep myself open to all of God’s glorious possibilities by wondering: what will I become tomorrow?
The Rev. Adam Thomas, one of the first Millennials to be ordained priest, is the assistant to the rector at St. Stephen's Episcopal Church in Cohasset, Mass. He blogs at wherethewind.com. He is the author of the upcoming book Digital Disciple, out this May from Abingdon Press.