This month I’ve had the privilege of conducting the Thanksgiving Service for an old friend who died a day after she celebrated her 103rd birthday. Her son in law had the unenviable task of bringing her memory to life – something he did with great skill, deep affection, real love and a good dash of humour. I’m sure she would have approved.
As with many such occasions, I find myself reflecting on my life in light of the example set by others. How has my life and/or my faith supported those around me through my example, involvement and encouragement? What regrets will I be left with for the things I wanted to do but somehow failed to embrace for one reason or another?
The latter question has been something which has come to mind time and again over these last few weeks. I’m sure it’s because I’ve had much more time to read, think and listen but it seems that this kind of question is an inevitable part of (and perhaps also an integral component within) any reflection on our spiritual life.
I want, though, to approach this question somewhat differently from the way I’ve phrased it in an earlier paragraph. I’m not trying to avoid the challenge it brings (yes, I will answer it) but it strikes me that there’s a second component underlying the question that needs a response as well. Alongside what’s left to be done and which can reasonably be expected to happen (a personal bucket list), there’s the question of regret: where have things gone wrong and how, if it’s possible, can these things be sorted out well down the road?
With the benefit of hindsight and experience some events and milestones seem incredible, miraculous even. I have cause to be grateful to so many people whose love, trust and support has enabled these things to happen and for my outlook and my life to be changed as a result. It’s given me the strongest possible foundation – Jesus Christ – on which to build. Above all, I am grateful to God as I am not what I once was and it is by His Grace that I am what I am..
Regret kicks in when I realise that I am not yet what I might be. It’s also true to say that my journey has been interrupted and compromised at times by my active participation, which has veered onto a very different course from that which represents God’s best. Some things are best forgotten but that doesn’t always happen as often nor as easily as I (or we) might wish. People, newspaper cuttings, circumstances and even sensory triggers like sounds or smells, can easily catapult me back to a place and/or a mindset I’ve worked hard to avoid.
By the same token there’s also a sense where decisions might have been different had I got my hands dirty rather than sitting on the sidelines. Far better to watch and be cynical from the touchline, than to risk everything by getting involved at too great a personal cost. The view is always different from there – a perspective I appreciate in the times when I’ve suddenly become “risk adverse” instead of my usual gung ho activism.
The words of the General Confession from the Anglican Prayer book recognise this dilemma very well. In Cranmer’s matchless prose, written over 450 years ago, I find my answer to regret and my pathway to freedom and renewed opportunity.
Almighty and most merciful Father, We have erred, and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep, We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts, We have offended against thy holy laws, We have left undone those things which we ought to have done, And we have done those things which we ought not to have done, And there is no health in us: But thou, O Lord, have mercy upon us miserable offenders; Spare thou them, O God, which confess their faults, Restore thou them that are penitent, According to thy promises declared unto mankind in Christ Jesu our Lord: And grant, O most merciful Father, for his sake, That we may hereafter live a godly, righteous, and sober life, To the glory of thy holy Name. Amen
Restoration is possible, forgiveness is available and new opportunities are there to be embraced in God’s time and economy.
It’s very unlikely now that I’ll ever bowl fast again nor will I cart the bowling all over the ground: quite apart from anything else, the kit doesn’t fit and the elastic is as gone in the whites as it has from my legs. Some other things on my (admittedly, short) bucket list won’t get done although others probably will: the Taj Mahal at dawn is coming up very quickly!
What I do know though – and am convinced as strongly as I ever have been – is that while the regrets may remain as an example of where not to go in the future, the consequences from the past have been sorted. No, they haven’t all gone away, some remain or crop up as reminders of where change is still needed. The outlook, though, is very different now from that of the autumn of 1976 on so many levels. The life I expected to value and the opportunities I was looking to pursue, have no attractions in light of the life God has given me.
That really is the Grace and the Generosity of God – and although it’s very personal and precious, it’s not unique to me. We can all share it becoming Christ focused and Christ like in the process.
 c.f 1 Corinthians 15 verse 10 quoted by John Newton: “I am not what I ought to be, I am not what I want to be, I am not what I hope to be in another world; but still I am not what I once used to be, and by the grace of God I am what I am”