(A personal letter shared with us by John Wood, pastor (retired) of Cedar Springs Presbyterian Church in Knoxville, TN)
My dear children and grandchildren,
I’ve been thinking of what I might say to you from the perspective of old age that I have not said to you in the past. You have heard me call you across the years to faith and faithfulness, to heed Solomon’s advice to “fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man.” My advice to you here is a bit different, but not at all contradictory. It’s simply a lesson my present circumstances are teaching me about the context in which we are to love God and love others – a lesson I wish that I had understood and embraced when I was young.
So here it is: The present moment is all we ever have. It is so simple as to sound silly and obvious, but I assure you that the failure to understand and embrace it causes most people to miss out on most of their life. It is biblical wisdom for sure, and also at the heart of the commonly held wisdom of the world, known by all but embraced by few. From the call, “This is the day that the Lord has made,” to Jesus’ advice, “Do not be anxious about tomorrow … Sufficient for the day is its own trouble,” (and its own joy, I would be bold to add), even to the Zen call to “mindfulness” summarized in the wise words, “Be here now,” it is a key to living fully and joyfully.
You may find yourself tempted to look back nostalgically on some past events and wish you could go back and experience them again. Simply give thanks for them and let them drift away on the stream of time. They are gone forever. They have helped mold and shape you, but they are no more. You may also look back on things that you regret, that you wish you’d done differently, that you wish you could somehow amend. Simply learn from them, give thanks for forgiveness and grace, and let those memories also drift away on the stream. The Lord has promised to remember them no more, and it is good that you let them go as well. Guilt and shame for confessed past sins, failures and mistakes, do nothing good for anyone and simply hold you back, bound to past brokenness.
You may also find yourself looking to the future – as in one sense you must do in making plans and setting goals. However, when the future arrives it is seldom what we thought it would be. Life changes everything in unexpected ways, and a wise person soon discovers that our character is shaped by how we respond to life more than by our efforts to control it. And here is the danger: if we think that our true life is out there in the future when we have achieved certain things, reached a certain age or success or independence, then we merely design a fantasy life that never actually comes. It is always future, never present, because things never quite turn out as we thought, and even the things we finally get or achieve quickly lose their luster just to be replaced by new dreams that take us away from the only life we ever have: namely, this present moment, here, now.
So embrace this present moment with gratitude and take note of everyone and everything around you – the love of family and friends, the grace of God that has so gifted each of you with intelligence and the ability to live and love well. It doesn’t get better than this. Nor does it get worse. Wherever you go, whoever you become, it will always be the same: you, standing before God and other people whom God loves and has invited you to love. We can do that with joy and gratitude always and everywhere, if (the big IF) we are fully present to ourself and those with us, not lost in a remembered past or an imagined future.
I love each one of you with all my heart,