When I was in grade nine I was the student director of a musical called Merrily We Roll Along, one of the least successful musicals by one of the greatest composers, Stephen Sondheim. I would pace nervously across the back of the theatre, stressed about all sorts of details. Letting a ninth-grader direct the musical was rare in the high school hierarchy and I was driven to perfection insofar as I knew how to be. But there was Amanda the techie who would emerge from the shadows, all in black, and say, “Hand squeeze,” and we’d crush each other’s hands with all our strength. It was not the slightest bit romantic. It was pure drama nerd mutual psychological support. She’d squeeze out the rage of missing adapter plugs and burnt out bulbs and just the general rage of having an artistic vision well beyond our high school’s budget. I’d squeeze out the frustrations with adult supervision that was at once unsupportive and micromanagerial, upper classmen who were tone deaf but had paid their dues and “deserved” solos, and eventual parents who couldn’t comprehend plot devices in theatre their 14-year-olds grasped with ease. We squeezed silently, unlatched, and went about the business of making the greatest show we could.
Sondheim closed this show with artistic and optimistic young people saying things like this, lines that have been intractable in my heart and mind since I first heard them countless times in rehearsal in 1998.
Something is stirring, Shifting ground ? … Don’t you know? We’re the movers and we’re the shapers. We’re the names in tomorrow’s papers. … It’s our time, breathe it in: Worlds to change and worlds to win. (“Our Time” by Stephen Sondheim)
There were plenty of bright and talented people in my high school drama club, but Amanda and I were in a smaller category. Not necessarily more talented, but the self-selected elite of most obsessed. (Drama club was, without exaggeration, the only thing I liked about high school.) We knew in our grade eight and nine hearts that something about what we were doing as “extra curricular” was very much the most real world preparation we did.
Today on Instagram I saw a picture Amanda took of lighting fixtures being installed at professional outdoor theatre. Twenty years later. Her caption:
If you told 15 year old me that someday I would be teaching tech theater at a HS and working at a summer theater where I climbed giant truss pieces and was about to mix my first professional musical, 15 year old me would have said “well, duh”. If you had told 25 year old me the same thing, she would have said “there’s not a snowballs chance in hell that will happen”. Sometimes it pays to listen to that bright eyed optimist you once were. Dreams do come true, 15 year old Amanda. Just hold onto it.
Some of my best late 90s memories–and I don’t generally wax nostalgic about the late 90s–are of being in the back of a theatre with Amanda, being bright-eyed optimists. Believing we could do anything for the very simple reason that we were in fact doing it. But Amanda’s insight struck me. She and I both are in our mid-30s doing exactly what the 15-year-old versions of ourselves believed we’d be. I think if you walked into my grade nine social circle and said, “Jon here is going to start insisting everyone use his name in French and be a priest in a Cathedral in Montréal and a chaplain at McGill…” everyone would have said, “Well, duh.” Including me. But I had to get here through a world, and worse a self, full of doubts and distractions. Twenty-five-year-old me would not have believed it. He was in the midst of being told by the world how limited he was and what boxes he belonged in, and desperate to survive was unfortunately believing too much of it.
As a youth pastor and university chaplain, I am not opposed to realism and pragmatism. I do think it is our adult responsibility to teach those. But I am opposed to them being foisted and forced upon young people as false idols, with demands they be worshipped, with no recognition they do not bring lasting happiness in and of themselves.
Twelve-year-old Jesus seemed to know who he was and what he was called to do. Not entirely, of course, but the essence was there.
When he was twelve years old, they went up to the festival, according to the custom. After the festival was over, while his parents were returning home, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but they were unaware of it. Thinking he was in their company, they traveled on for a day. Then they began looking for him among their relatives and friends. When they did not find him, they went back to Jerusalem to look for him. After three days they found him in the temple courts, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. Everyone who heard him was amazed at his understanding and his answers. When his parents saw him, they were astonished. His mother said to him, “Son, why have you treated us like this? Your father and I have been anxiously searching for you.”
“Why were you searching for me?” he asked. “Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?”
But they did not understand what he was saying to them. Then he went down to Nazareth with them and was obedient to them. (Luke 2:42-51a NRSVA)
What about 25-year-old Jesus, though? We don’t know. We just know that his mission, as we knew it, started around age 30. Perhaps he was in the phase of pragmatic practicality. It may not have been a bad thing! He left the temple, a place he knew he belonged, to which he was called, and went down to Nazareth, and obeyed his parents. I dare not suggest he, or Joseph or Mary, did anything wrong. If anything, I wonder if there is a remarkably common human discernment journey that the incarnate Jesus experienced. Am I projecting my personality and experiences onto Jesus to feel theologically good about myself? Probably. I stand in a long and ancient tradition of Christian commentary if I am so guilty.
We do not necessarily have any idea what we are doing, really.
Saint Paul, perhaps a bit melodramatically, but frankly quite relatably, said:
For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. (Romans 7:15-19 ESV)
But you know what is even more perplexing than our past life, with the blessing of hindsight, more bewildering than our current life, with the bias of assuming ourselves to be right: our futures.
The New York Times has a great piece on our collective, common delusion that we know our future selves, “You Won’t Be the Person You Expect to Be.” I don’t mean circumstances, which most of us admit we cannot know. I mean our future personalities. Our future religious beliefs, or relationship values, or sense of humour. We readily can admit how much we have changed in the last ten, twenty years. How different we are as people from those past selves, but nearly everyone when invited to imagine their future selves pictures this moment now as the pinnacle of their personal development, the “end of history illusion.” It is the comforting but pompous notion that the version of ourselves we know are has finally figured it all out.
I think back on 15-year-old me, the nerdy drama club kid in the back of the theatre pacing, in a beret, praying under his breath, and how very right he was about what the future could hold. I think about 25-year-old me, “realistic” and obedient, and thank God, wrong. I think about how so many of my dreams came true, and how I am not done living yet. When all your dreams come true, it is time to be grateful, time to be hopeful, time to keep dreaming, time to enable others’ dreams.
In my own life, I have learned I am persistent, but distracted. I achieve what I commit to, but seldom quickly. Let’s just say, because it’s true, that teenage me wrote a poem called “2010” that is looking like a perfect prophecy of 2020 me. I like to imagine that 45-year-old me will have published a few young adult novels, have a pet goat, live in a small house in Ireland, and have a loving wife. But in working toward all that, I remember that I may change. And if I do, it will be because I chose to. My reassurance is simply this: I’m not God. I just work for her.
Many are the plans in a person’s heart, but it is the LORD’s purpose that prevails. (Proverbs 19:21 NIV)
Make your plans, but don’t make them idols. May God’s will be done in our lives.