Article for July 31, 2011

Jerry is a curiosity to me.  “Can do!” is the phrase that sits perpetually poised on the tip of his tongue.   From where I come from, those words sound exotic and foreign.  Nonetheless, I have generally appreciated and benefited from this trait over the years as in, “Jerry, can I get your help in building a shelving system for my garage?”  Year after year of starting with the premise that “he can” has led him to accumulate a wide and deep pool of knowledge on the topic of “How to Get Things Done.”  If you need a hand building a deck, renovating a rec. room, laying tile, flying a plane, or scuba diving, then Jerry’s your man.


I am the anti-Jerry.  My consistent approach to a project has always been to start with the basic premise that somehow, some way, I will screw it up.  Generally, the data from my life full of do-it-yourself projects has verified my hypothesis.  Oh sure, I can paint a wall, dig a hole, or mow my lawn.   But anything that requires more technical savvy than say, a chimp, is way beyond the grasp of my fumbling opposable thumbs.


Any mother of a son reading this essay should responsibly be asking herself, “How did he get this way so that I can avoid creating a numbskull like that?”  Alas, there are no easy answers.  Oh sure, I can remember watching my mom from the sanctuary as I strained to lift the long-stemmed candle lighter to the impossibly high wicks.  Her panic-stricken face seemed to shout, “Oh my Lord in heaven, my boy is going to light the parish on fire!”  For my mother, every electrical appliance that plugged into a wall socket represented potential death.  For her, a child could contract tetanus through merely glancing at a rusty nail.


And she’s still that way.  To this day, news of a grandchild going to the beach prompts a report of a poor child in Florida who was suffocated by the shifting sandcastle he built with his own hands.  “Playing soccer in this wind?”  She asked my daughter in a shrill, incredulous voice.  “Do you have any idea how many soccer goals blow over, hitting children in the head, causing brain damage and even death?!”


These “grandma-isms” are the source of many a shared laugh between my siblings and now, my kids. But every-so-often, the wisdom of my mom’s neurotic approach shows up. One gusty soccer night, I watched in disbelief as a heavy steel goal blew over, falling inches from our goalie’s head.  Immediately I could see the apparition of my mother’s nodding, knowing face, mouthing the unspoken words, “I told you so!”


Along the same lines, I remember my first plane ride with amateur “Pilot Jerry.” In answer to my question, “Are you sure you know what you’re doing?” came some version of Jerry’s predictable, “Can do!”  Before we boarded our plane he assured me that, “statistically speaking, these planes are far safer than riding in a car!” The next thing you know, after an hour-long ride, we’re bouncing up and down on a runway with a plane that refused to land.


Two tries later,  the Yo-Yo-plane finally taxied to a much-appreciated halt.  After kissing the ground, and thanking God that I kept control of my bladder, I thought to myself,  “Maybe my mom was onto something?”  A lesson showed up then and there on that runway.  “Can-do-ism” is all well and good, but it too should be taken in moderation, and needs to be balanced by a healthy dose of “grandma-ism.”  For every Jerry in the presidential cabinet that is our psyche, there needs to be a Tom, and vice-versa.


In this Sunday’s Gospel passage (Matthew 14:  13-21), when confronted with a crowd of thousands, and only a picnic basket full of food, Jesus’ response, was all Jerry, while his disciples’ response was all Tom.  As the famous story goes, when confronted with a stadium full of hunger, the disciples recommended that Jesus send the crowds home to get something to eat.  He responded, “Give them some food yourselves” (vs. 16 b).


Over the years, I have received several different versions of “asset based” training.  That training has taught me that each one of us represents an unrepeatable expression of God’s creativity.  Our soul is made from the breath of God itself.  Our personhood is loaded with loaves and fishes ready to be multiplied.  And so, Jesus’ admonition to “give them something to eat yourself,” has always struck me as another way of saying, “You can do it!”  But even with all of this training, I am still the son of Barb Wagner.  That means, that there is another part of me that is an awfully lot like the disciples in the middle of this passage saying, “But all we have is this little duffle bag full of food!”


What I have learned over the years is that, to be an effective disciple is to balance one’s inner Jerry with one’s inner-Tom and vice-versa.   Saint Ignatius, Loyola (whose feast we celebrated this week) was somebody who found that balance.  Through the course of his life, he manifested a strong conviction that all things are possible with God.  Simultaneously, he displayed a healthy sense of his own limitations.  When he heard the call to establish a religious order, he showed an awareness of his own personal deficits.  The next thing you know, he traveled to Paris and enrolled in a several-years-long doctoral program in theology.  Endowed with a healthy dose of Jerry within him, Saint Ignatius said, “Can do!”  But his inner Tom said, “Give me a minute (or several years) to get some training so that I don’t screw this thing up.”


When it comes to your inner Tom and Jerry, how are you balanced?  Do you nurture a healthy sense of what is possible with God’s grace?  Do you display a mature acceptance of your own limits?  What side of that equation needs the most work in you?

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