Twenty-nine years ago, on a bright May morning, I graduated from Meredith College, a four-year women’s college in Raleigh steeped in Baptist heritage. Founded in 1891, Meredith has long been known for a high quality of education and certain unique traditions. These inherited and shared experiences are an essential part of what identifies a woman as a Meredith alumna, and we cling to them tenaciously.
One beloved tradition is the dramatic presentation of Alice in Wonderland by members of faculty and staff. Performed only once every four years, this highly anticipated treat produces shrieks of laughter as spellbound students squint at the stage, trying to identify their professors through layers of makeup and elaborate costumes. Given its popularity, it is not surprising that use of the search engine for the campus library is called “Ask ALIS,” neatly combining this whimsical love of Lewis Carroll with the unforgettable strains of Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” by way of an acronym whose parts no one can be bothered to remember.
I was asked to deliver the baccalaureate sermon in 2009, which coincided neatly with the 20th year anniversary of my graduation, and not surprisingly, Alice put in an appearance. While she is disoriented from meeting all the strange creatures of Wonderland and wanders around with no idea which direction to take, she encounters yet another odd inhabitant of this weird world, the grinning Cheshire Cat, and addresses it in an attempt to reorient herself.
‘Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?’
‘That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,’ said the Cat.
‘I don’t much care where—-‘ said Alice.
‘Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,’ said the Cat.
‘—-so long as I get somewhere,’ Alice added as an explanation.
‘Oh, you’re sure to do that,’ said the Cat, ‘if you only walk enough.’
I suggested to the graduates that the professors and support staff at Meredith, as well as their families and friends, had been their Cheshire Cats whose encouragement and wise counsel had consistently shown them that their destination was dependent on where they wanted to be. I hoped that I was imparting some pearls of wisdom to the graduates, but I didn’t connect my words to my own life until re-reading that sermon on Pentecost of this year.
In 1989, I could hardly have imagined the strange, circuitous paths that would lead me to this point, but the necessary disorientation that accompanies transition has time and again given way to the Spirit’s sometimes gentle and, more often firm nudges. Every year, I take stock of my life and ministry, seeking to discern whether Christ is calling me to continue traveling in the same direction or to take a deep breath and make a change. And every year, as I pause to give thanks for my Cheshire Cats, I am reminded that while the Spirit may sometimes swoop in like a rushing wind complete with ecstatic tongues or dancing flames, my usual experience has been less dramatic, more like Alice’s conversation with the Cheshire Cat. More often than not, I have been led forward as a result of an insightful discussion with a surprising source, but however it happens, I give thanks for the ways in which God takes the past and makes something new come of it, as I anticipate dreaming new dreams and seeing new visions, guided and goaded by God’s Holy Spirit.
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In the beginning was the Word,
and the Word was with God,
and the Word was God.
Donna L. Fowler (Fowler-Marchant) is an elder in the NC Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church currently serving as Minister of Pastoral Care at First Presbyterian Church, Fayetteville, NC. She is writing a book about John Wesley as a spiritual director, especially through his letters to women, and her thoughts about God, life, and the Wesleys can be found at travelswithwesley.blogspot.com.