It’s been a couple of weeks since I last wrote anything about my cracked up American life. And now that I have finally survived Christmas and lived to tell about it, I’ve only New Year’s resolutions left to keep and break sometime before Valentine’s Day I suppose. I pondered long and hard about why as a Christian I loathe Christmas so much here in my beloved America. Perhaps its because it brings melancholy memories of my late Father (who I now identify with), walking around like a chicken with his head cut off trying to get enough presents under the tree so that his conscience could ease his guilt of being a subpar Santa for his kids. I remember hints of joy, but mostly seeing the strain in his eyes of all that he would have to do in his and others eyes to bring Christmas joy to his children. All the while, the one who came to bring hopeful joy free of charge was at last given homage for a hasty reading of the Christmas story before we tore open the gifts. He would not get much runway on His birthday after that, and as I sit here today and recall these moments, I fear not much has changed. And so, I guess you could call me Ebenezer for short.
Reasons for the Old Man and the Sea Thing
So at 12:01 on December 26th, when I pinched myself and realized I had indeed outlasted the hoopla of ole St. Nick, I was reminded of a couple of things about my life as of late. First of all, I reminded myself as to why this growing old man moved by the sea in November of 2015. I had already had several people ask me, curious about why I had uprooted what was left of my family and moved to this beautiful oasis; especially now in my 50’s. Their curiosity stemmed from the fact that most have by now grown out of the move left in them, and have settled into some secure form of an American dream perched behind a Norman Rockwell painting of their making. A dream now full of houses, stocks and bonds to begin sorting out, all the while preparing for a grand ole thing called retirement just down the road a stone’s throw or two. Of course that first curious question was easily answered back in 2008 and again in 2014, when I began to realize that my dream would take a much less predictable turn. You see for me, there were no longer any of those things to sort out in the cards for my family and I, so I guess you can say, “I now had options”. Since I owned nothing, and had lost most everything materially that one holds far too dearly to, the sky began to be the only limit as to where I could go. In a sense, I guess you could say I was finally free.
That of course led to my second reason for looking for the answer by the sea. Because from the time I have been a child, the ocean has been a happy place for me. I had dreams as a younger man of owning a house on the ocean where I would write and then take breaks to play with my grandchildren, and then snuggle up to my wife with my favorite pipe and hot cocoa on our back deck as the waves quietly roared to the beat of the moonlight. Though this has not yet come to fruition, I was able to find a place about 4 blocks from the ocean, and so a quick six-minute walk almost any given day takes me to my Shangri-La, if to only have five-minutes to remind myself that I’m not that big of a deal, and that He really, really is. Just five or ten minutes to breathe in and hopefully take with me a morsel of what really matters in the world, when everything else I encounter tells me a I’m a fool to think it for too long. It has indeed given some sense of calm to my life, and if I know nothing else, for now, I know it is where God has me–yet for what I do not know.
The third reason we ran to the ocean was familial and social in nature–both good and bad. The good side of that decision was simply to give my older sons, who had now gone off in quest of their own version of some dream they possess in their beings, to do so without Mom and Dad just around the corner to catch them if they fall in pursuit of it. It was to give them some space to be free, to finally cut the umbilical cord, and to finally give them wings to fly solo. All the while with Mom and Dad a short 3 hours away with an extra room for their needed getaway, or perhaps a Mom and Dad fix as often as they could ever want. I miss them dearly, but these things have their time and place, and the time for us was now. It felt good and right, and I am very much at peace with the decision we made. The bad side of the decision to leave was that even though we were older and wiser, and knowing full well that you can’t run from your problems, we did decide that sometimes you can at least move a little further down the road from them so it takes a little longer for them to show up at your doorstep. This is in regards to my extended family I might add. A family for whose guilt, manipulation and exploitation was merely a phone call, an episode or a gossip column away. It also had to do with the network of true, Godly, and “real” friends, that seemed impossible to find after a decade and a half, and the lack of friendships for my last young son, for whom parental love needed to be coupled with friends he too could call his own. That of course has gone amazingly well, and ours; well…we’re still working on that.
And About the Wandering Bit
Well now that I’ve told you a little of where I’ve been lately and why I’m here, I guess I should say something briefly about my title today. The words come from perhaps my favorite hymn called Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing, written by Robert Robinson in the mid 1700’s. And in that blessed hymn these particular words lately have caused me to ponder their depth and reality for me, and hopefully for all those who call themselves by the name of Christ. The words are:
O to grace how great a debtor
Daily I’m constrained to be!
Let Thy goodness, like a fetter,
Bind my wandering heart to Thee.
Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it,
Prone to leave the God I love;
Here’s my heart, O take and seal it,
Seal it for Thy courts above.
These words have often brought me great comfort, not only because of their rootedness in the gospel of God, but also because of their being true to my own life and experience of walking with Christ on the narrow path. For in so many ways, I know I have grown and bear some fruit that resembles Christ, and yet…still today, I’m prone to wander, with so many distractions that beckon me for their attention and importance, and sometimes I feel it for far too long as I’m derailed from the path I’ve been called to travel. And not only do I feel it, but unfortunately; others from time to time have to see it.
I’m reminded of the disciples when Jesus is in the Garden of Gethsemane. He says to them several times in essence, “Could you not watch and pray with me for an hour”. We also are told that each time he came to ask this, he would find them asleep. Now for sure sleep is a natural bodily function, yet in a person’s horrific hour of grief one would think we could put some toothpicks in our eyes or something to refrain from the temptation to sleep on the job. I’m reminded equally of the beloved big fish magnet, Jonah, who while on the boat to Tarshish away from the call of God, while everyone else is frantically trying to find a way to save themselves from the boat’s impending doom, he is asleep to it all. Yet he is especially asleep to the plight of his fellow man, and the call of His God upon his life. Or how about good ole Peter, who gets it right so many times and two seconds later denies His Lord, not too awfully different from one betraying with 30 pieces of silver and a kiss, yet who never lived to tell his own repentance tale.
As I have been contemplating these things as 2017 is knocking at the door for me to invite him in, I see more and more of this dichotomy and pull from both the world and my Lord raging within me now at 52. To be sure I’m smarter and wiser now, and also farther along the narrow path. So I’m not as sidetracked by youthful things such as wine, women and song; and have now long ago realized that a fool and his money soon depart, along with any friends they may once have brought. Yet I feel the difficulties of life bearing down, continuing to seek to fashion me into it’s mold and to distract me from what’s eternal and to saddle up with what’s temporal instead. The reason is because as we age, we are more and more aware of our finiteness, and death’s door; though we hope is still a country mile or two away, it nonetheless whispers to us of it’s sure certainty of which we must soon pay attention. This causes us to grasp with all we’re worth for our mortality rather than to pursue with a vengeance our promised immortality. And we begin to see that if the modern adage is indeed true, that “he who dies with the most toys wins”, then we’ve more striving to do and best get on with it. And if we surmise we’ve already lost that game, we can be inclined to resort to a slow easy chair death, where we rock our way into acceptance of a failed and wasted life, content to decay away with a self-injected slow drip of “coulda, shoulda, woulda”.
I recall reading one time that Billy Graham had said, if he had it to do all over again, he would have prepared much more for getting old. I was perplexed by that; wondering what exactly he meant. It’s now starting to settle in. For instance, if I had a dollar for every one of my 50’s friends, who when I speak about getting old, they say the typical things such as, “You’re only as old as you feel”, or “50 is the new 30” or something of this nature, I’d surely have a chunk of change. And to be sure, I get exactly what they are saying, and I’m not dead yet, and so I intend on continuing to push forward to greatness in whatever big or small way God has for me. However, I am no longer looking for “6-pack abs”, I don’t and can’t wear skinny jeans, I’m not searching for any fountain of youth, and I don’t think anything good now happens after 10:30 at night:). I can rock your world till then baby, but after that, I now have to pass the baton.
What I have been reminded about in wrapping up today is what the Monk at Mepkin Abbey said to me when I asked him what he had learned in the Monastery that he felt he could not have learned from life on the outside. He told me that for years he had served as a Priest in parish ministry, and of course spent a great deal of time ministering to the sick and dying. He said one of the overwhelming things he picked up on in ministering to the dying is that in their last days they became the most selfless human beings he had ever witnessed, and that all they cared about was knowing God and serving and loving others. He then looked at me and said, “That’s what I learned in the monastery that I do not believe I could have learned otherwise: how to be more like those people”. I’ve never forgotten those words and have etched them in my journal perpetually so I never forget.
So Yes, I am prone to wander and Lord I feel it, prone to leave constantly the one I am to love first and foremost. Yet more and more each day I am reminded that nothing else outside of knowing Christ and serving others really matters, and I know that I must not let this truth wander away. In fact, I think I’d rather not die first for it to be true of me.