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What is Life?


I will soon celebrate my sixty-sixth birthday. In July, Polly and I will celebrate our forty-fifth wedding anniversary. We now have thirteen grandchildren. Two of our granddaughters will start their senior year of high school in the fall. Both are straight-A students, and both have boyfriends! OMG, where had the time gone? I am now, without question, an old man, a cranky curmudgeon. I have seen a few things and experienced a lot of this thing we humans call life. As I comb through my past, I have come to the conclusion that life is the sum of our choices (and, at times, the choices of others), held together by the mortar of luck and circumstance. As I carefully examine my life, I can see how certain decisions I made in the past materially affect my life today. For example, as a married, full-of-life, physically fit young preacher, I decided to opt out of Social Security. For the next seventeen years, I paid no social security/Medicare taxes on my ministry-related income. I leveraged the clergy housing allowance and other legal tax avoidance schemes in such a way that I often ended up showing no personal income on my tax return and paid zero taxes for the year. This went on for years. Not bad, right? My motivation was simple: as a die-hard right-wing Republican, I believed that the government didn’t deserve my money. In my mind, the less money local, state, and federal agencies had, the better. I thought, at the time, “Why should I pay real estate taxes? My children attend a private Christian school or are homeschooled. Why should I pay for the world’s children to be educated in government schools?” When I bought automobiles, I purchased them through the church, thus avoiding paying sales tax. I expensed everything I could, with the goal in mind that I was economically starving the government.

In the late 1990s, I had an epiphany of sorts. I realized, for the first time, that I was one day going to be where I am now, and that I would need some sort of retirement income. I also started having niggling health problems, and in 1997, after months and months of unexplained fatigue and pain, I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia. At that moment, Bruce-with-a-big-S-on-his-chest learned that he was not invincible; that life was a kryptonite of sorts that will, in the end, lead to my demise.

I opted back into Social Security and started paying taxes again, but this was too little too late. Fortunately, over the course of my work career — from age fourteen to today — I worked numerous “secular” jobs:

janitor, gas station attendant, short order cook, newspaper motor route, life insurance salesman, sweeper salesman, restaurant general manager, network manager, durable medical equipment supply office manager, dairy department manager, grocery stock clerk, workfare/court offender program manager, litter control manager/officer, building code enforcement officer, grant manager, real estate updater for an auditor’s office, farm worker, auto mechanic, cable box repairman, shipping and receiving, turret lathe operator, and numerous general laborer jobs in factories

These jobs provided enough work quarters for me to qualify for a nominal monthly social security payment of about $800. While this is not a large amount of money, retirement-wise, it makes a meaningful difference for us. Neither of my parents lived long enough to collect social security, so I have outlived them and will win the prize. Woo-hoo! However, I can’t help but think about how much better off I would be as a disabled retired man had I paid social security/Medicare taxes on my ministerial income. The difference would be significant, but due to a singular decision made long before I ever had a thought about getting old, I am forced to live with the consequences of that decision.

I always made more money working secular jobs than I did working for God. The most I ever made income-wise as a pastor was $24,000. Most years, I made $8,000-$20,000 (including housing) pastoring churches. If it hadn’t been for secular work, government assistance, and Medicaid insurance, we would have been destitute. As it was, we were dirt poor for most of the years I spent in the ministry. It wasn’t until the late 1990s that things improved for us. Polly started working for Sauder Woodworking (she just celebrated her twentieth-seventh anniversary there) and our oldest sons started working jobs of their own.

It’s unfortunate, though, that I had decided as a young husband and father to let “God” take care of our wants and needs. As anyone who has ever done this has learned, “God” loves keeping his followers in the poor house. Why, if “God” had backed up a Brink’s truck to our home and unloaded some of the “treasure” he supposedly has, we wouldn’t have “needed” him any longer. So, “God” kept us on our knees, ever begging for divine assistance. I sincerely believed that “God” would meet our needs and even throw in a few wants from time to time, so I accepted that our poverty was God’s good, acceptable, and perfect will for our lives (Romans 12:1,2). Of course, I never asked Polly or our children what they thought of this arrangement I had with God. I was the family patriarch. End of discussion. I wonder how different our lives might have been had I put the financial and material welfare of my family first; had I built a career managing restaurants or working in government alongside my work as a pastor. Would we have been better off? Probably. But, who really knows for sure?

Have you ever thought about certain decisions you have made in your life and wondered how things might have turned out differently? I call this the what-if or would-of, could-of, should-of game. While we like to think that life would have been different if we had only made this or that decision, there are too many variables for us to know for sure how things might have turned out. For example, at age eighteen, I was madly in love with a twenty-year-old college girl named Anita Farr. (Please see 1975: Anita, My First Love.) For much of 1975, we had a torrid relationship — as no-sex-before-marriage Baptist relationships went, anyway. I was sure she was the one. However, our relationship didn’t last, and in late ’75, I packed up my meager belongings, hopped a Greyhound bus, and returned to Ohio. As I look back at this time in my life, I see two people who had similar personalities and dispositions. Both of us were quite outgoing, personable, and temperamental. I told Polly a while back, as we were talking about past choices, “If I had married Anita, one of us would have murdered the other and ended up in prison.” Our relationship was very much one of a lit match and gasoline. A year later, I enrolled in ministerial classes at Midwestern Baptist College in Pontiac, Michigan. My game plan, girl-wise, was to play the field. I thought at the time, “what a blessing from God, a dormitory filled with fine Baptist women!” Sure enough, I started dating a girl by the name of Peggie. After a few weeks, our casual relationship petered out and we moved on to other people. Next up for me was a seventeen-year-old dark-haired preacher’s daughter named Polly. She was (and is) a beauty, but I had no thoughts at the time that she was a woman I was ready to settle down with. It was not long, however, before Bruce, the player, was smitten and in love. On Valentine’s Day in 1976, I proposed and Polly said “yes.” So much for playing the field!

Choosing to marry Polly — a choice I would make again in a heartbeat — certainly changed the course of my life. On a hot day in July,1978, at the Newark Baptist Temple, we stood before our family and friends (and God, or so we thought at the time) and pledged our troth to one another. We were two mutually infatuated children, ill-prepared for the pressures and challenges of married life. Six weeks after we married, Polly informed me that she was pregnant. Six months after that I was laid off from my job. This forced us to leave school and move to the home of my birth, Bryan, Ohio. So much for our “plans,” or God’s, for that matter. From there, my ministerial career and our married life took a completely different path.

I have written this trip down memory lane — one that will receive the voluminous treatment it deserves in my book — to illustrate how the many choices we make, along with external influences, materially and permanently affect our lives. I don’t believe in soulmates. I don’t think for a moment that Polly is the only suitable woman on planet earth for me. She is, however, the woman I chose to love and marry, and together we have made a good life for ourselves. We have made a hell of a lot of bad decisions and wish we could have a do-over on more than a few things. But, on balance, we’ve had a good life. The sum of our choices has led to where we are today. Hopefully, we have learned a thing or two over the past forty-five years, but I am confident that we still have a few fuck-ups left in our lives. Live and learn, right? Or, well, live anyway . . .

Do you ponder the decisions you have made in your life and how things have turned out for you? Do you wonder about how different life might have been for you had you made different decisions? Do you have a simple philosophy by which you govern your life? Please share your erudite thoughts in the comment section.

Bruce Gerencser, 66, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 45 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.

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    Hmm. If I hadn’t joined my past denomination, I would never have met Bob and had my sons. What really gets me is I began to be afflicted by TMJD at the age of 18, which turns out to be a precursor to fibromyalgia at the age of 23. Of course, I thought it was normal that people hurt and ached all over under stress. I even read an article about fibromyalgia and didn’t have a clue. And religious people are supposed to pray their (health) problems away! At least when I finally admitted it wasn’t mentally healthy for me to be a Christian, that I ended up getting medically treated. It was only 15 years too late!

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    Ben Berwick

    As always Bruce, you tell a beautiful, heart-felt, emotional story, and it got me thinking.

    There are quite a few moments in my life I view as pivotal. Decisions taken on relationships, careers, and the like. There are mistakes I’ve made, errors in judgement that leave me resenting myself on a daily basis, and yet, when I pause, when I think about undoing them, I realise that if I did, I would almost certainly lose what I have now. I would not have a loving wife, nor a beautiful daughter, if I unravelled those threads. I have to take the pain, to have the love that I have. I don’t know if that makes much sense, but that’s where I’m at.

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    Bruce, thank you for sharing, as always. I try to look at my life through the lens of whether I madd the best decision at that time with the knowledge and tools that I had available. I have made several major decisions that greatly impacted my life, mostly for the better. Last week, I traveled to Nashville where I grew up, and I confirmed again that moving from Nashville to New Jersey in 1994 was definitely the right decision for myself and for the family that I raised in NJ. I don’t like the prospect of who I might have been had I stayed in Nashville. It’s hard to imagine that within the confines of family, evangelicalism, and Southern culture that I would have forced the freedom to explore alternatives. Today, as a 53-year-old, I am mostly happy with the life I have. There were some rough spots in the past, and I am sure there will be some in the future, but I am at peace with the choices I have made.

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    As a complete aside to this excellent post–I made several trips to your neck of the woods in December-February as I was doing consulting work for Sauder Historic Village. While I gather it’s fairly separate from the woodworking company at this point in time, I did learn quite a bit about Erie Sauder and the family’s history in that area of Ohio. I also learned that Archbold is a little short on dining options on a Sunday night… Luckily I found some pretty decent pizza and beer in Defiance.

    • Avatar
      Bruce Gerencser

      Sweetwater Chop House, Fired Stone Tavern are the only two places we eat. We go to Toledo or Fort Wayne when we want “real” food. Sadly, a lot of locals think Applebee’s is fine dining. 🤣🤣

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        Ha! Yeah, Fired Stone was exactly where I ended up! I also had some pretty good wings at 4KD Crick out in their parking lot on my first trip out there. Dunno if they’ll contract me for anything further in future but if they do I’ll keep my eye out for Sweetwater Chop House.

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    It does seem fate is a tapestry, and you can’t step in the same river twice. I know with me, my father died in a freak construction accident when I was a toddler. If he hadn’t, it is likely I would still probably exist but no doubt would be quite different person with different relationships likely very different circumstances.

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    MJ Lisbeth

    Bruce, this is a beautiful and heartfelt post. Thank you.

    I am a year younger than you. Although I’m happy with most things in my life now, there are things I wish I’d done differently. Then again, I’m not sure that I could’ve.

    To wit: Had I talked and written about my sexual abuse from a priest and a family friends about three decades sooner than I did–or if I’d told anyone at the time it happened–I might’ve unraveled my gender identity, sexuality and other things in my life sooner than I did. But I didn’t have the language and the context–namely, safety and the knowledge that my word would have been discredited against that of my abusers.

    Also: When I was in my mid-twenties, I went–for the first time to a therapist. She told me I needed to get into a twelve-step program and to see a gender therapist. I didn’t go back, and I didn’t follow one part of her advice for half a decade and the other for two decades. What if I’d gotten off drugs and started my gender affirmation process sooner than I did?

    As for faith: I was raised Roman Catholic. While in college, I “gave my life to Jesus” and joined an Evangelical Church and campus fellowship. Although I can’t imagine making such choices today, I did, if inadvertently, find in them two things that have been major parts of my life: teaching and writing.

    One more thing: When I was beginning my gender affirmation process, I debated whether I wanted to continue bicycling. Nearly everyone with whom I’d ridden to that point was male, and I couldn’t imagine myself riding as anything but a lycra-sheathed wannabe Tour de France winner. I am so glad that I have discovered what I truly love about cycling.

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Bruce Gerencser