Closing Words by Rev. Tom Goldsmith Volume 8

28 January 2021

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There’s an old story told in many ways that’s used metaphorically to point out life’s peculiar ironies. Basically, the narrative involves a man with limited carpentry skills who takes on the ambitious task of building his own house. He bumbles through many obstacles and hurdles mainly by improvising ways of completing a necessary step with his available tools. The next day he goes to the hardware store where he buys the tool he should have used in the first place to make his work a lot easier. He never has another opportunity to use the newly acquired tool, so it’s just added to his tool chest. This frustrating exercise continues for years until the house is completed. He winds up with a new house and an amazing array of tools he never used. But they are there, just in case.

Sometimes acquiring wisdom feels like that. You muddle through a challenge, accumulating great knowledge never to be used again. We collect wisdom much like tools to help wrestle life’s trials. You feel prepared then for the next time you encounter such a vexing matter, but the occasion to use your storehouse of wisdom never materializes. 

As I fast approach retirement, I begin to feel that the wisdom I have acquired just sits there idly with no real application like the glistening tool chest in the story. My time is running out for ever using even a fraction of what I have learned in conducting ceremonies alone:

  • When a couple insists that their two Saint Bernards would make excellent ring bearers at their wedding, deny them. Saint Bernards yawn loudly throughout the entire ceremony while passing gas. 
  • Cats are not cut out to be ring bearers, deciding instead to exert their independence in front of a crowd of confused guests. This is especially true for outdoor weddings. Cats feel no remorse in absconding with the rings. 
  • Make sure that the four-year old ring bearer fully understands his assignment. Otherwise, he will growl throughout the ceremony because he assumed his role to be a “ring bear.” And the young lad, as in my case, growled as though auditioning for a Broadway show. 
  • Inform the three-year old flower girl that she doesn’t need to be a good girl by walking up the aisle to pick up the pedals she has just strewn. You want to avoid having her colliding with the bride who is hysterically trying to make her way down to the wedding altar. “Get the hell out of the way” is generally not what one typically hears the bride utter during the processional.
  • Don’t think a Hollywood celebrity will reward you with a generous fee for services. In the roughly 1400 weddings throughout my career, the only person who ever “stiffed” me was Katherine Heigl, the glamorous star of Knocked Up, 27 Dresses and the TV drama, Grey’s Anatomy. But I get to say I married Katherine Heigl which she probably figured was worth more than any monetary compensation.
  • When a groom hugs the great white porcelain god for an hour past the time of his wedding, he does not have the flu. It’s a good idea to tell the guests it’s time for them to go home. Delivering pastoral counselling to a young man retching is never optimal. 
  • Never accept a wedding when the couple wants the ceremony on the ski slopes. Their expectation is that the officiant performs the ceremony while skiing down backwards. Although I confess to occasionally winding up with my skis inadvertently pointing uphill, it would take an Olympic skier to fulfill the couple’s fantasy.
  • Exercise caution when a divorced man wants to show slides of his ex-wife during her memorial service. Although he hoped to capture only the fun-filled adventures shared during their marriage, occasional nude photos of the deceased appeared. There are no words to describe the reaction of the guests. 
  • Have parents explain to their young children the function of cremation ahead of an interment of ashes memorial service. This will preclude children from wondering about contortionism and the ever-perplexing question asked louder than a stage whisper: “How did they fit grandpa into that tiny box?” 

These are just some examples of stored wisdom never to be utilized. They just sit there, like a new set of gleaming tools purchased after the fact. These are lessons learned the hard way by stumbling through the experience. If only I had known or been advised how to handle these awkward situations before being confronted with them head-on. But in truth, that would have made 46 years of ministry a lot less fun. Much like life itself, ministry loses its excitement if you know the right answers ahead of time. Improvisation tests your wits, and there is no better way to learn than by figuring things out with your own limited set of tools. A house, a ministry, a life is built by ingenuity because the right tools are seldom available just when you need them most. 

I am frequently asked if knowing what I know now, would I begin ministry all over again as a young man? The temptation is to answer yes, with a distant chance of reaching some sort of stardom with so much stored wisdom beyond my years. But as I feel retirement encroaching, much like a timer on the microwave counting down the minutes, I look at my accumulated tool chest differently. Figuring things out the hard way keeps you humble and nimble and real. When the tool chest is filled with unused tools designed to make work easier, you’ve arrived at a place where you feel a certain satisfaction. Figuring things out on your own terms is what makes life’s adventure so adventuresome.  You remember the inherent humor of your mistakes and the sense of achievement despite your fumbles. And all your accumulated wisdom assumes its rightful place, a reminder of a journey shaped strictly by the love you poured into it from the first step on. 

Tom Goldsmith