Ray Wilson gave this Journey of Faith on March 19, 2017.
I was born in 1944, at the height of World War II, and raised in Lexington, Massachusetts. My father, an engineer, was considered an essential civilian and so stayed home. My mother, an English Literature major, was a stay-at-home mom. They fell in love on their first date, and they were a team for over seventy years. I had two sisters and a brother, all younger. My younger sister Sarah and my brother Mark both had cystic fibrosis, and died in their early twenties. A day doesn’t go by without my thinking of them and missing them.
My parents built their family around some strong principles: the Congregational Church; the love between the two of them; the nuclear and extended families; education; service to the community; and the drive to excel in everything.
I was a skinny, uncoordinated, weird kid. They told me I was extremely bright, but a complete underachiever. If the diagnosis of ADD had existed in 1954, I would have been tagged in a heartbeat. I went my own way, and was a great trial to my parents and teachers. That said, I haven’t the slightest doubt that my parents loved me, even if they often had no idea what to do with me.
As a nineteen-year-old Marine, I decided that the doctrines I was taught in church didn’t pass the test of reason, and became a determined atheist. For 35 years, I never attended religious services—except for weddings, funerals or classical music. But in my fifties, I relented a bit, and began to think that there might actually be something to the old notion of “beloved community”—provided I didn’t have to recite any creed. Long story short, I joined this church in 2000. I’m still here, and I expect I’ll stay. Here I can center myself, and sometimes even hear the still, small voice.
Question: what has the still, small voice done for me recently? Answer: a whole lot.
As many of you know, my father died this past Christmas Eve, aged one hundred. His death has left a huge void in my life, and much cause for thought about the meaning of life—his life, or anyone’s life, or my own life. At 73, I’m thinking about these things more and more.
David Brooks of the New York Times has a wonderful five-minute TED talk about living “for your résumé” versus living “for your eulogy.” A thought-provoking set of three articles in the current issue of Free Inquiry magazine is devoted to exploring the idea of mattering, and the three-o’clock-in-the-morning question: Do I matter? Has my life mattered? Will it matter?
The older I get (and thus, the more funerals I attend) I have become more and more convinced that this all boils down to one simple question: at the end of my life, is the world a better place—in some small way—for my having lived? If it isn’t, then I’ve taken more out of life than I’ve put back in—which makes me a parasite.
Like many of us, I have no worry about the necessities of life. I have far more than I really need. But: “from those to whom much is given, shall also much be expected.” I can do a little more to make this world a better place. I can give a little more of my time; I can give a little more of my talents; I can give a little more of my treasure; and I can give a little more of myself. In that way, I will matter more. And this church—this beloved community—helps me stay resolved to do this, and to do it joyfully. I thank you.