Which metaphorical box are you in was the question posed by Dr. Gregory Poland to the audience at the 36th annual Marco Island Prayer Breakfast.
As he stood on the stage, he was joined by two cardboard boxes, strategically placed on either side of the podium. They served as symbolic visual aids, with one bearing the word “Culture” while the other, the word “Hope.”
“One box offers pleasure, whatever you want,” said Dr. Poland as he held the “Culture” box. “You even get to decide what’s right or wrong, with conditions, of course.” He then picked up the “Hope” box. “This box over here offers freedom, joy, peace and a word I really like, coherency, but with conditions, of course,” he explained.
Dr. Poland was the keynote speaker at the Breakfast, which was held recently at the JW Marriott Marco Island Beach Resort. He is an internationally known expert in vaccines and biodefense, with a resume lined with sterling accomplishments. Dr. Poland is the former Mary Lowell Leary professor of medicine at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., and director of the Clinic’s Vaccine Research Group.
He resigned from his positions at the Mayo Clinic to enter the ministry. Today, Dr. Poland is a seminarian and a pastoral intern at Marco Island Presbyterian Church. After completing his coursework and getting ordained, Dr. Poland plans will enter a theological degree program at the Edinburgh Theological Seminary, in conjunction with the University of Glasgow, in Scotland.
As he held the rapt attention of an audience of roughly 450 people in the Marriott’s Palms Ballroom, Dr. Poland explained that the boxes and what they represent are important because we live in an age where we believe we have the final word on God’s existence and what God asks of us.
“That’s my ‘Culture’ box over here,” he said. “We make ourselves the ultimate decision maker. It’s a box of absolute autonomy and it has its attractions, doesn’t it? God becomes someone who thinks, chooses, acts and likes exactly what we want. What an amazing coincidence. The other box, the ‘Hope’ box, well that’s the road far less traveled. It’s God’s way. It’s His decrees for how we should live, even when don’t want to, even when it’s hard to, even when it’s not what we would choose at all.”
Dr. Poland then provided the audience with a snapshot of his life’s journey, as a window through which they could examine their own life and their relationship with God.
He was born, he said, in the “mid-Twentieth Century,” the oldest child of a father who was a career Marine Corps officer with two tours of Vietnam and a mother who was an actress, writer and pianist. The family lived in Alexandria, Va., but the household’s stability declined when the Dr. Poland’s divorced after the war ended.
“Although we had a house, for the most part after that, we four children were abandoned,” he said, adding that at the tender age of nine, he felt responsible for raising his siblings. “I know what it is to have inadequate clothing, to be hungry, to be without heat or medical care, but more importantly, what it’s like to be scared, to realize you have no adult to depend on,” Dr. Poland added.
Providence led to several adults playing key roles in his life. Among them was a next-door neighbor who took he and his siblings to church and made sure they also attended bible school every summer.
“That’s where I first heard that there was a God who cared about me,” said Dr. Poland.
After excelling in high school, he received a scholarship to college and then medical school and after five years of medical school studies, he joined the Mayo Clinic, with a specialty in internal medicine and a subspecialty in vaccinology.
Dr. Poland said his “Culture” box seemed to be working well at this point.
“I started with nothing and I made it,” he said. “Every few months, I was getting an award. One of the highlights occurred in 2013, from the Mayo Clinic Board of Trustees. I was selected as the top physician out of the 4,000 in our system.”
He also received an endowed professorship, which carried with it abundant funding for travel “and more money for my research than I knew what to do with.” Dr. Poland also has five patents for his scientific discoveries and he’s invented three areas of science in the field of vaccines. He’s also advised high-ranking governmental officials and appeared on national TV shows because of his expertise.
“I guess you’d say that in my field, I was famous, with enough pride to build a mountain range,” said Dr. Poland. “But I was haunted by the question, ‘Which box was ruling my life? What was my future to be and my legacy? I’d been a believer for years, but I’d been hearing a whisper, an insistent tongue, to go into ministry for seven years. To be obedient to God to call of us back to Biblical Christianity, not cultural Christianity, but the radical call of Biblical Christianity. I couldn’t shake it. It didn’t make any sense to me. I already had a calling, I was a healer. So using the best tools in my culture box, I resisted it for seven long years.”
But four years ago, that calling could no longer be ignored and he resigned his post at Mayo Clinic to enter the ministry. Some of his colleagues ridiculed the decision. However, Dr. Poland told the audience that he’d learned that we’re sometimes called to do things that may seem foolish by society’s definition, but we should do them anyway.
He then cited Matthew 16:26, which states: “What does it profit a man to gain the whole world, but forfeit his soul.” Dr. Poland said that verse haunted him.
“It followed me everywhere,” he added. “It pierced into the center of me, as I hope it might you.”
Dr. Poland asked the audience to decide which “box” they will choose, whether they will trust God, which leads to their individual box marked “Hope.”
“Are you going to jump into the arms of a loving God or into a bottomless pit that never ends, into an eternity that’s full of tears or an eternity where there are no more tears, into an endless hope or a hopeless end,” he said. “Those are the only two choices, so which box?