Hydrangeas outside the Hayes Conference Centre in Swanwick, Derbyshire, England.
A friend asked me if I would write a post with what advice I’d give the me from 20 years ago. I suspect he is 20 years younger than my 67 years, and his question has given me a lot to think about.
In this past year my friend Ronnie died. Ronnie and I were in high school together, and we played guitars together and even performed in an open mic forum or too. Ronnie could sing so well, and wrote some beautiful, heartfelt songs about some parts of a difficult life. Being blessed with what could be a long life has awakened gratitude in me. Yesterday I had a routine medical procedure that required me being put under anesthesia. Before I went under I offered a prayer to the Lord for a good life, grateful for the love of God, for my family and those who love me, for the chance to live.
Twenty years ago I was working for the Bread of Life, part of the ministry to the homeless of St. John’s Downtown in Houston, and was beginning my candidacy process to be an elder in the United Methodist Church. I wouldn’t start working in a church for another year and a half. I was in the second of five years of seminary. Brenda and I had been married for coming on five years, and we were praying for the next step.
I was guarded toward church ministry, and had been avoiding the call for many years, but was still drawn and driven toward it, perhaps like the Spirit drove Jesus into the desert for a time of temptation after his baptism. (Mark 1: 12) I knew of many unhappy stories of those who served in the church, and I would both learn more and have a few of my own in the years to come.
But I would say to that guy from 20 years ago to cultivate “an attitude of gratitude” — like we say in the AA rooms — and to “count it all joy” when we encounter diverse temptations. (James 1). Throw yourself on the mercy of God, cast your cares upon the Lord, and don’t try to take them back when you do. Read and be shaped by the Word of God, and pray not for things, but for character and relationship. All the worry, all the anxiety, all the hoping to get folks to do something or be something — all the concern about what others thought of you or how they regarded you — let that go as best you can. None of it matters in the end. None of it.
I’ve been reading some poetry from William Stafford. He wrote a poem every morning before dawn for years. In the months before he died in 1993, he continued this practice, and many of these last poems are astounding in their beauty.
“Toward the End”, begins with this quote from the Spanish mystic Theresa of Avila: This is from the collection, The Way it Is: New & Selected Poems. Watch how he ends, with the realization of joy that makes all of it worth it — no more regrets, no more wishes of difference…gratitude. While reading this over and over I had images of faces flashing by from all the years, some close, some distant, some painful, some fierce, all being part of what brought us here, as I saw nothing but blessings…
“Toward the End” by William Stafford
Let mine eyes see thee,
sweet Jesus of Nazareth;
let mine eyes see thee
and then see death.
Theresa of Avila.
They will give you a paperweight
carved out of heavy wood with black letters
that say everyone likes you and will miss
so steady and loyal a worker.
You carry it home and look at the nice message.
Not always have people allowed you even
a quiet exit — catcalls from that woman
who once appeared kind, plenty of lectures.
And oh the years of hovering anger
all around when each day reluctantly
opened and then followed like some dedicated,
stealthy, calculating, teasing assassin.
Now you can walk into the evening.
Walls where people live lean
on each side. You feel your mother by you
again, and your father has taken your hand.
Sister Peg skips ahead and looks back
that way we all loved and said, “Ours —
how eager she is! Beautiful!” We didn’t
stay true, Peg. We didn’t, we didn’t.
The road bends gradually, then aims
straight at sunset. People are streaming
where all the sky opens on a bluff
and the sea drops off, blue and bright.
Suddenly this moment is worth all the rest
Never has the sweetness arched so near
and overwhelming. They say a green flash
comes if you are lucky right at the end.
Now you see it was always there.
I would tell my 47 year old self that the anger was not worth it, the resentment was not worth the life given up in exchange. Give yourself over to the Lord, and learn to love God and neighbor and let God take care of the rest. The “green flash” Stafford writes about reminds me of C. S. Lewis, who wrote that at the end, when we review our life, we’ll see that hidden Hand that’s always been there, and we’ll turn to the Lord and say, “so it was you, all along.”