Based on a sermon by Methodist pastor and bishop William Willimon (1946- ), in which he tells his (and our) story.
There was a time when I was not. I look through old family photo albums, and I see whole generations of people who came and went without me. All kinds of people, blood relatives of mine, were born, lived, died, and were buried without any knowledge of me. There was a time– a very long time— when I was not here, or anywhere. There was no me.
Then the sperm cell met the egg cell, and an embryo was formed. Cells divided rapidly, over and over again, and before long, something that sort of resembled a human was taking shape. Gradually, through various chemical and biological processes, I was becoming. When did I begin to be aware that I was ‘something,’ when did I become aware of me, aware of myself? It seems clear that the fetus in the womb, can before very long, feel and react to pain. Therefore, I could no doubt feel the pleasure and coziness of that watery, warm, and comfortable, though very dark, home; even though I was a still a long way from full consciousness. This is what I think that it must have been like for me. But I remember none of this. By this time, my parents were announcing to the world that I was coming, but still, there was no ‘me’ showing up on the family photos.
Psalm 139:13 — (Lord), you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
Gradually, my comfortable home seemed to be getting smaller, and I began to feel cramped. Then one day, all of a sudden, things began to move. Something was pushing on me, pushing more and more; and then, something was pulling on me. No one had asked me about any of this, and given the choice, I probably would have said “No, I don’t want to go anywhere, I am comfortable where I am.” But I had no free will in the matter.
Finally, I was going through a canal; and then, a shock. There was a big temperature change, a big slap, and light– light which was all new to me. I didn’t like any part of it, and so I cried. That was new too, I didn’t know I could do that, but before long I found out that crying could be very useful.
In fact, crying was about all I could choose to do. Everything else was done for me, whether of not I wanted it to be done. Cold hands picked me up and put me here and put me there, hands put food in my mouth and then took it away, and hands dressed and undressed me. I would even be put me into a warm tub, which felt good, even familiar, like the good old days; but then, I would always be taken me out of the tub, which did not feel good. But again, I had no choice.
I had no choices, but there were lots of orders as time went on. ‘Roll over, sit up, smile, stop crying, eat your food, don’t touch, pull up, stand up, take a step;’ there was no end to it. I was given a name, and then somewhere along the line, I figured out that when I heard ‘William’ that meant me. I had become a ‘me,’ and I was beginning to be aware of myself and how I fit in. Somebody had named me, claimed me, and was there for me. They were nice to do all that, but I began to notice that they were running the whole show. They did not ask me about my opinion or wishes on anything.
And then, I learned a couple new words. By this time saying ‘mommy’ and ‘daddy,’ but then I learned to say ‘no’ and ‘mine.’ That was a big step. Now, I began to assert myself, make my wishes known, and, establish my territory. I could tell that others did not always liked the new ‘me’ I had discovered, but that didn’t matter. I was in the very first steps of a process that would last a very long time, the process of taking control.
I was still always being told what to do. ‘Eat now, sit down, don’t put food in your hair, take a bath, stop begging, put your toys away, play nice;’ and then later, ‘go to school, learn this alphabet, clean up your room, go outside and play, come in from outside, take a bath;’ and then still later, ‘learn the multiplication tables, read your assignment, get better grades, think about what you want to do for a job,’ and so on. I was still getting pushed, but I was beginning to take control.
I had learned the word ‘mine,’ and I was beginning stake my claims. It was my room, and I had my toys, and it was, even, my mommy and daddy. And I learned that I could resist the control others tried to exert. I would come to say “No” more and more often, realizing that sometimes it even worked and I could win. I was getting bigger and I was getting stronger, and I was finding my place in the world. It was, at first, a very small place, to be sure. A room, and a bed, and a few toys. But before long, much was added. My teams, my ability to get good grades, my wit, my popularity in school, my car, and pretty soon, my plans. Then, when my plans started to work out, it was my degrees, my career, my positions, my authority, and my prestige. It was my wife, my own family, my big house, my cabin, and all my many achievements. There was so very much I could call mine; so very much I could control. Nobody was telling me what to do very much anymore. People had to listen to me. I was now a force to be reckoned with. (continued…)