Gut Checks

This past week, I experienced a real gut check. Mark Feiner, the new but fantastically competent conductor of our South County Sound barbershop chorus, died in his sleep at age 55 over the weekend. We were all shocked.

We met as a chorus the next Tuesday night, to honor and talk about Mark and his impact on us; and then we talked about the future, our future. You see, we’ve been preparing–thanks to Mark’s prodding and encouragement–to compete for the first time ever just 6 weeks from now, at a district competition. We’d been working hard and were beginning to feel we could actually do this, and place respectably.

When Mark died, our board chair immediately assumed we should cancel our participation, as he told me by phone a couple hours after we got the news. But he asked for group discussion about it on Tuesday. The discussion started as a seesaw. “If we do poorly on our first competition, we’ll be known as a low performing group and will have a reputation, a hole to dig ourselves out of. That’s how these things work.” “No, we need to do this for Mark, no matter how we score in the competition.”

Finally I felt a churning and spoke up. “Maybe this is a gut check time. True, the idea of competing was Mark’s idea. He finally talked us into believing we could do it. Now he is gone. So it’s our choice… will we decide this was Mark’s dream and it dies with him, or will we now make it our dream? This could be a touchstone for SCS. If we do gather ourselves and compete, we may well look back for years and say this was a defining moment for our group, in giving us confidence and cohesiveness.”

Finally, the Chair asked for a show of hands. Of the 40 guys there, as far as I could tell, when asked who wanted to press forward and perform at contest, 40 hands went up. It was amazing. Afterwards, a longtime barbershopper told me he’d never been in a group that has such commitment and cohesion.

A few days later at a vision trip orientation, I was reminded of a much more dramatic gut-check moment. The moment happened 10 years earlier, on a drive out to the Afar desert in Ethiopia, about a year before I became involved in the project, and directly related to how I did. In the early days of this project, which serve the fiercely independent, Kalishnikov-toting Muslim Afari people, the 300-mile road was hardly paved at all. The first visitor group was going out to meet the people and explore starting the project. That group was so large and the partnership so undefined that a non- WV vehicle with a non- WV driver was added to the caravan. This vehicle was forced by oncoming trucks onto the soft, slanted shoulder of the road, and it then flipped over, landing upside down. Two passengers were seriously hurt, (including my WV predecessor, who never fully recovered). Eventually, the passengers were extracted from the upside-down vehicle and transported back to the capital.

And that’s when it happened: The remaining group gathered in the midday desert heat and asked: “In light of this major setback, should we see this as a warning and turn back, or do we press on?” After prayer and discussion, the decision was unanimous: we press on! The skeptical, resistant Afar people heard about it and came out en masse the next day to meet the visitors. The governor kept repeating with wonder, “But you came anyway…” As a result, new doors opened, walls came down, and a long-term bond was formed.

Every year I hear this story from Pastor Tom Theriault. And each year I am reminded this story is a key part of the history in the genesis of this amazing 12-year partnership.

We’ve all had gut-check times. These are “moments of truth”, to a road we are traveling, to our faith, marriage, or job, and they are rarely orchestrated by us.

The first one I remember was when my 17-year old girlfriend emerged from the doctor’s office and told me she was pregnant, equal parts excitement and fear. I was 18, and about as capable of taking care of her as Rolf in “The Sound of Music” when he sings “You are 16 [but] I am 17 going on 18; I’ll take care of you.” Yet I acted just as self-assured: we bought our first baby toy and began making plans for marriage. Thirty-eight great wedded years later, those solidarity responses still seem more mundane than heroic to me, but Janet would disagree.

Another seminal gut-check was when at age 26 I began to think more deeply about my dad’s death at only 40 years old. In very good health, he died in his sleep of a brain aneurysm, and the doctor said those can run in families.

I started imagining dying at forty: will my life have made any difference? Yes, for my family, but I wasn’t at all sure I was being faithful to “whatever God put me here to do.” I recall sitting in church one day asking God to reveal that to me.

Then it hit me: What if God tells me? Will I actually do it?! It was then I decided to be “all in.” I think that answering “yes” to God like that, before I knew the question, was the turning point in my life, from a place where Jesus’ worldview was a suggestion, to understanding it was his invitation to me personally.

That’s been a decisive difference in my life. And now it’s part of my personal (and our marital) history. And though my singing group isn’t making such heavy decisions as that, it quite likely will become part of our group’s story, something recited to each new member …like the Afar accident is recited each year to orient those traveling, as part of the history they are now continuing.

I think it’s very easy to overlook these personal “history making” moments, to not see the invitation. Practical considerations overtake our thinking, we “stay in our head”, we calculate the tradeoffs and mark off Pro and Con columns in our mind. Those are very helpful in most decisions, such as determining which couch or car to buy.

The trick is to keep our eyes (and hearts) open for the gut checks. Whether they are tests of our resolve or of our courage, they are invitations not to be missed, decisive touchstones and altars that many times actually become the most important trail markers we leave behind.

Addis Ababa
Feb, 2012

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