PAULA MEHMEL: Shoot The Rapids — What Really Matters

I received a letter from my 22-year-old self this week. Well, sort of. It was a letter that I sent to the woman who was my camp counselor when I was 14, thanking her for the influence she had on my life. I sent it the week before I left for seminary, Aug. 31, 1986. She found it this week, scanned it and sent it to me.

Reading it, I saw all the youthful exuberance of a young woman who was bound and determined to change the world. In the letter, I wrote:

“The driving force in my life is the Gospel of compassion that Christ preached. I’ve decided to put my frustrations with the warped sense of importance that the Christian church has today to good work. I guess I have big dreams and am very much an idealist, but I see the importance of love for one’s fellow man(sic) and dream of a theology which emphasizes the Lordship of Christ while also dealing with the injustice of the world. In other words, my reaction against the conservative trends of society have driven me to devote myself to service of the poor.”

But acknowledging that I am determined and driven, I wrote:

“I have been told that I will lose this vision, but this is something I see Christ leading me to and I hope I can keep my focus on him as the rest of the world tries to defeat my spirit.”

I read these words and think of that 22-year-old woman and her desire to make a profound impact on the world — to be a huge agent of change, full of naivety and enthusiasm to make a big splash.

I read these words and know that they were written before I became fully broken.

  • Before I was violently assaulted, feeling hands around my neck, trying to strangle the life out of me.
  • Before I broke down in the months after that attack, perhaps not actively suicidal, but with no zeal to live in the world that had betrayed me, ready to let a bus hit me and take me out of my ministry.
  • Before I made mistakes, failed and fell down again and again, as I was learning, growing and trying to figure out what it means to be a pastor, a partner, a parent.
  • Before I saw up close and personal the cost of addiction as I married and divorced the one true love of my life and held his hand as he died, grieving the waste of a life that could have been so different and the price it cost for so many.
  • Before I was publicly forced from a call the day after Steve died and yet, left to remain surrounded by those who turned away from me, remaining in that small town for four years after leaving my congregation.
  • Before I became a recipient of Medicaid and had to reach new levels of humility and ask someone to buy the house that had been the only home my sons had known so every fabric of their life wouldn’t be ripped away, as I worked to rebuild my life in the aftermath of the loss of my sons’ father and my job in one short weekend. Before I became “the poor” I so desired to help.

And yet, I also read them after. After seeing the faithfulness of God, in season and out, continuing to sustain me, lift me up and provide healing, no matter what brokenness occurred as I coped with the changes and chance of life. After seeing what true friends, loyal family members and supportive communities look like.

And in that between time, the time between writing that letter and reading it this week, I can still see the hand of God at work, not necessarily in ways that changed the world but in ways that changed me, to help me become a more humble and a more faithful servant.

What I have learned in the between times is that how one impacts and changes the world doesn’t have to be in big and bold ways but by remaining faithful to one’s values and seeking to live them out, however imperfectly, in my daily life. In learning to forgive others and to forgive myself.

Both of my parents spent their lives devoted to the service of others. My father was in many ways the “father of community mental health” and built one of the best community mental health centers in the country. And my mother, a speech therapist, spent her life helping others find their voice.

But after Dad retired, “the Center” he built changed and diminished as government policies shifted. And my mother, in the end, lost her own true voice, as the cruelest dementia I have ever witnessed, made her a pale shadow of who she once was. But I know that their lasting legacy wasn’t in what they built but in the lives they impacted along the way.

This week, I was having tea with a friend and I told her I admired her faithfulness as a pastor and her creative approach to ministry and she said, “Well, it hasn’t turned any churches around.” I immediately responded, “But I’m sure it has turned people around and impacted and changed them.”

And in my mind, in the end, that is what really matters. Steeples may fall and institutions may fail, but the true legacy we leave is the impact we have on others. As I wrote this week in response to Benji, who sent me that letter, “They say  people forget what others say to you, but you never forget how they make you feel.”

The difference between 22-year-old Paula who wanted to change the world and 57-year-old Paula is not my enthusiasm or determination or even my clarity and purpose, but my perspective.

It’s not about the world I’m going to change but the God who will not change and who gives me the grace to fail and to fall and to keep on going, with trust and faith. In the end, that is what matters.

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