A few years ago, I sat under the blazing Florida sun, delicately dancing around the trip wires laced across our complicated lives.
I had one 24-hour window where I knew I was guaranteed his sobriety in the wake of another hospital stay, where I knew I had no guarantee he would survive the next fit of DT’s.
We were sitting by the little community pool, around a hard plastic table, baking in the heat. He talked of my childhood, and the regrets he still carried. We exchanged careful apologies and forgiveness, and I asked him if he had made a clean breast of it to those he still owed a debt of love to; had he spoken to my brother and mother, had any hard conversations?
“Sometimes you can’t go home,” he said, and then he sipped his ice water the way he always sipped after all those years trying to go dry, his grim smile betrayed by those hooded blue eyes.
He believed a lot of lies in his life, but that one may have been the most destructive.
We all know, though sometimes we choose to ignore, that Today is all we have; that none of us are guaranteed tomorrow, or even “later.”
The truth is, there were approximately 827 “todays” between the day of that conversation across the hot, plastic poolside table, and the day I got a phone call in the middle of Longwood Gardens from a funeral director in Delray Beach who very mistakenly thought I had already been notified of my dad’s death.
That’s 827 opportunities to pick up the phone, to use two of the most powerful words known to man, maybe three. Not to move mountains, not to raise the dead, not to hash out an entire lifetime; just to pick up the phone. To start. To cease avoiding the unavoidable, and to do what only he could do.
Trust me when I say I write this with tenderness, okay? The reality is, no one can do your right thing for you. No one can swallow your pride, no one can seek forgiveness on your behalf, no one can extend the mercy and grace and gifts and love that only live in you. If you don’t do it, no one is coming to do it for you, and people will suffer. Your people will suffer.
I’m telling you this because it’s true. And there is mercy for it all – there’s nothing mercy can’t cover, truly – but there are also real-life consequences for what we choose to do with the time given to us.
You can spend a lifetime – one entire lifetime – feeling sorry for yourself and using that self-pity to craft a whole world revolving around wounded pride, or resentment, or pain. You can spend decades, literal decades, blaming everyone and everything around you for the breaks you didn’t catch, or the things that he or she said or didn’t say enough, or did or didn’t do the right way.
You can guard your wounds so rabidly that you distrust even the kindest hands that come to dress them, because no one understands your wound like you. No one will clean it or gauze it the right way. No one will be tender enough around the edges, because you know better than all the nurses, even the Physician, and any attempts to deliver good medicine are met with excuses as to why it will be ineffective regarding your specific pain. You can rehearse the scene of the accident over and over again, willfully bringing it to mind long after the wreckage has been cleaned up.
You can lie there, crafting a world where every bad thing in your life can be traced back to What Happened, and every formation of bad character can be blamed on it. Eventually you’ll end up septic, and then your life will be over, having spent 40 years in a hospital bed on account of refusing basic medical care. But at least you’ll have your pride; a monument of sorts in the shape of What Happened, so that as people pass by, it will be all they’ll see, because it’s what you’ve become. An ode to What Happened.
I’m telling you this because I’ve done it too, and I know now that if you so choose, you can spend this entire gift of a life in that spot, to the bitter end.
Friends, there are many ways to spend a life, but that is a waste.
The alternative is forgiveness.
Forgiveness leads to joy even in the face of life’s disappointments on this planet; both receiving the forgiveness offered to you, and extending it to everyone you have the pleasure and hardship of knowing for the remainder of your days on earth.
Let us acknowledge that forgiveness begins in reality. The reality of what happened, and the reality of what you can do with it now. There are some things on earth that are easy enough to forgive or overlook; there are other things that will change the trajectory of your life’s orbit, and that’s what I’m addressing on this first day of the new decade. Most of us will have to deal with something equivalent to an asteroid slamming into our lives at some point – whether by reaping what our hands have sown, or by the reality of injustice on this earth by another’s hands. What you do next with that scarred and sacred crater is completely and entirely up to you. And while there is a lifetime, truly, of patience and empathy and compassion for:
what your parents did or did not do,
your susceptibility to _____, and
every other aspect of your environment –
– the reality is you are responsible for your life, and nobody is coming to take that responsibility for you.
If you are hell-bent on the world recompensing you for your list of grievances against it, you are going to spend your entire life miserable. Miserable. You may turn to avoidance or drugs or alcohol or that cruelest of analgesics, Bitterness – and all of them will cause you to miss the good things in front of you while spending your strength on Things That Do Not Matter instead.
The parable of the unmerciful servant teaches us the important truth that we are all unable to pay up. All of us. You cannot pay your sin-debt to God, nor to your fellow man, and friend, neither can anyone else pay theirs to you. The list is too long. The cost is too high. Nobody has that kind of money. It’s why Jesus gave His life for us.
Our culture is incredibly good about shoving the latest offense in our faces, voices clamoring to cancel and condemn and demand a bloodguilt that you and I and everyone else will never, ever be able to atone for. That is the story of mankind. Forgiveness is the story of Heaven.
Forgiveness is the gift we give to ourselves, and our spouses, and our children’s children’s children. Forgiveness is the gift He gave to us.
Life is short.
If you’ve wronged someone, go to them. Don’t run from your responsibility as a member of the human race. Don’t ghost them. Go to them in humility, and in grace, and in truth, and make it right. You can do that. You really can. Even if they don’t forgive you, you will have a clean conscience before man and God. You might even be able to sleep at night. Just pick up the phone.
If someone has sinned against you and you can’t overlook it, go to them. Go to them in humility, and in grace, and in truth, and point out their fault between the two of you, and perhaps you will win them over. If not, see the rest of Matthew 18:15.
Or, don’t; but don’t deceive yourself in thinking there’s an alternative between those two and spending your Todays banking on a tomorrow that may never come.
Forgiveness might take all you have; even if you attend to it daily, it’s hard until it isn’t. God knows it’s hard down here. But it’s not all hard, and that’s really important not to miss. There’s so much beauty down here. So much love that you don’t want to miss out on. Your family, your friends, your loved ones – what I am saying is that no one else can love them for you.
The day after that poolside conversation, I linked my arm through his as we ambled back to my rental car, furtively committing every step to memory. It’s so surreal, the monolith of your youth weathered by time, the time that comes for us all. He was frail, and thin, and his arm was so soft just like I remembered it as a child. He smelled faintly of marijuana, and I knew my window was closing. It’s okay; there was a lot of love and healing exchanged in that once-in-a-lifetime day. I love him even better now than I did then.
Things could’ve looked a lot different over the last 40 years, for all of us. But that means things can be different for you and I today, still here, marking our days towards Home. Right now, the sun of the first day of a brand new year, of a brand new decade, is setting. Mary Oliver said it well in her poem, The Summer Day;
“Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon? Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?
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