Based on a sermon by Methodist pastor and bishop William Willimon (1946- ), in which he tells his (and our) story.
There was a time when I was not. I look through old family photo albums, and I see whole generations of people who came and went without me. All kinds of people, blood relatives of mine, were born, lived, died, and were buried without any knowledge of me. There was a time– a very long time— when I was not here, or anywhere. There was no me.
Then the sperm cell met the egg cell, and an embryo was formed. Cells divided rapidly, over and over again, and before long, something that sort of resembled a human was taking shape. Gradually, through various chemical and biological processes, I was becoming. When did I begin to be aware that I was ‘something,’ when did I become aware of me, aware of myself? It seems clear that the fetus in the womb, can before very long, feel and react to pain. Therefore, I could no doubt feel the pleasure and coziness of that watery, warm, and comfortable, though very dark, home; even though I was a still a long way from full consciousness. This is what I think that it must have been like for me. But I remember none of this. By this time, my parents were announcing to the world that I was coming, but still, there was no ‘me’ showing up on the family photos.
Psalm 139:13 — (Lord), you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
Gradually, my comfortable home seemed to be getting smaller, and I began to feel cramped. Then one day, all of a sudden, things began to move. Something was pushing on me, pushing more and more; and then, something was pulling on me. No one had asked me about any of this, and given the choice, I probably would have said “No, I don’t want to go anywhere, I am comfortable where I am.” But I had no free will in the matter.
Finally, I was going through a canal; and then, a shock. There was a big temperature change, a big slap, and light– light which was all new to me. I didn’t like any part of it, and so I cried. That was new too, I didn’t know I could do that, but before long I found out that crying could be very useful.
In fact, crying was about all I could choose to do. Everything else was done for me, whether of not I wanted it to be done. Cold hands picked me up and put me here and put me there, hands put food in my mouth and then took it away, and hands dressed and undressed me. I would even be put me into a warm tub, which felt good, even familiar, like the good old days; but then, I would always be taken me out of the tub, which did not feel good. But again, I had no choice.
I had no choices, but there were lots of orders as time went on. ‘Roll over, sit up, smile, stop crying, eat your food, don’t touch, pull up, stand up, take a step;’ there was no end to it. I was given a name, and then somewhere along the line, I figured out that when I heard ‘William’ that meant me. I had become a ‘me,’ and I was beginning to be aware of myself and how I fit in. Somebody had named me, claimed me, and was there for me. They were nice to do all that, but I began to notice that they were running the whole show. They did not ask me about my opinion or wishes on anything.
And then, I learned a couple new words. By this time saying ‘mommy’ and ‘daddy,’ but then I learned to say ‘no’ and ‘mine.’ That was a big step. Now, I began to assert myself, make my wishes known, and, establish my territory. I could tell that others did not always liked the new ‘me’ I had discovered, but that didn’t matter. I was in the very first steps of a process that would last a very long time, the process of taking control.
I was still always being told what to do. ‘Eat now, sit down, don’t put food in your hair, take a bath, stop begging, put your toys away, play nice;’ and then later, ‘go to school, learn this alphabet, clean up your room, go outside and play, come in from outside, take a bath;’ and then still later, ‘learn the multiplication tables, read your assignment, get better grades, think about what you want to do for a job,’ and so on. I was still getting pushed, but I was beginning to take control.
I had learned the word ‘mine,’ and I was beginning stake my claims. It was my room, and I had my toys, and it was, even, my mommy and daddy. And I learned that I could resist the control others tried to exert. I would come to say “No” more and more often, realizing that sometimes it even worked and I could win. I was getting bigger and I was getting stronger, and I was finding my place in the world. It was, at first, a very small place, to be sure. A room, and a bed, and a few toys. But before long, much was added. My teams, my ability to get good grades, my wit, my popularity in school, my car, and pretty soon, my plans. Then, when my plans started to work out, it was my degrees, my career, my positions, my authority, and my prestige. It was my wife, my own family, my big house, my cabin, and all my many achievements. There was so very much I could call mine; so very much I could control. Nobody was telling me what to do very much anymore. People had to listen to me. I was now a force to be reckoned with.
And then, somewhere between age 50 and 60, I turned a corner. At some point, I stopped growing up– upward and onward, that is. I seemed to level off, and then, began a downward ascent. I still had the position and the authority, but not the energy, and no longer the drive. I had risen about as high as I could go, or wanted to go, in my career– and I started getting tired. Tired of getting more and more, yes, I had enough; and tired of clawing my way to the top, yes; but also physically tired. I began to doze off at meetings, I could not work as many hours, and my tennis game was going downhill fast.
What’s worse, I had to start taking orders again; now from kids, that is to say from doctors that were the age of my kids. “You have to change your diet, Rev. Willimon, you can’t eat as many sweets anymore, and you better get more fiber in your diet, and you’ll have to start taking these pills for your heart… What?… I don’t care if you don’t like to take pills, take them anyway. And we’re going to keep an eye on that knee– we might have to replace it.” So this is where I am at now, at the twilight of my working career, and moving into the ‘downhill and doctor years.’
I am a minister, so I’ve been with enough elderly people to know how the last years of my story will go. For many years, all that I could call ‘mine’ was increasing. Now it will be rapidly decreasing. One by one, everything I worked for will be taken away from me. My career will be taken away, and that’s okay; as I said, I’m tired. Then, if I’m lucky, I’ll have some good retirement years, but sometimes that gets taken away. My house will get to be too much to take care of, my travel plans will become more of a hassle then its worth, I’ll have to get rid of all my stuff, and then, worst of all, I’ll have to get rid of my car. One by one, if I live long enough, everything will be taken away from me, and it will be like I was when I was a child, without much I can call my own anymore. Not only that, but there will be somebody pushing me here and pushing me there, telling me when to eat, and when I should have a bowel movement; waking me up, putting me to bed, bathing me, even changing my diaper.
John 21:18 — When you were younger you would fasten your own belt and go wherever you wished; but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you, and take you where you do no wish to go.
Gradually, everything I accumulated will be relinquished, including my dignity. And each letting go is just a practice run for the final relinquishment of breath itself. To simply lie on a bed and breath will be all I be able manage, and then a great fatigue will overwhelm me. Once again, I will be pushed and pulled; but pushed and pulled to what? Is this to be like birth, another going out into something else, unknown to be sure, but something else? Or, will it just be the end?
Job 14:14a — If a man die, shall he live again?
John 14:19b — (Jesus said), “Because I live, you also will live.”
If Jesus rose from the dead, as we believe he did, this final letting go is not the end but a new beginning. It will be a new birth into a new life, through another canal and another time of darkness; and then light, and another opening of the eyes into something entirely new and different and infinitely better. What is seen as a departure here, becomes a homecoming in heaven, with new hands to welcome me.
John 14:2-3 — (Jesus said), “My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.”
Jesus said, “Unless you turn and become as a little child, you cannot enter the kingdom of God” (Luke 18:17). This verse takes on new meaning after looking at our story told in this way. We might well dread all that we must give up as we near the end of our earthly stories, but if we believe what Jesus tells us, becoming again like a helpless little child is just part of the process. Martin Luther once said, “As little as children in the womb know about their birth, so little do we know about life everlasting.” At the beginning of our stories, warm and comfortable in the womb, we had no way of knowing what wonderful things were ahead for us after being born. In the same way, we can’t begin to imagine the wonder awaiting us after death, that new birth into eternal life.
I Corinthians 15:56-57 — The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
LORD, TAKE MY HAND AND LEAD ME by Julie von Hausmann (1826-1901)
Lord, take my hand and lead me
upon life’s way;
direct, protect, and feed me
from day to day.
Without your grace and favor
I go astray,
so take my hand, O Saviour,
and lead the way.
God, when the tempest rages,
I need not fear;
for you, the Rock of Ages,
are always near.
Close by your side abiding,
I fear no foe,
for when your hand is guiding,
in peace I go.
God, when the shadows lengthen
and night has come,
I know that you will strengthen
my steps toward home,
and nothing can impede me,
O blessed Friend!
So, take my hand and lead me
unto the end.