Well, it’s good to be back from my travels. I have one more trip, then I’m staying put for three months, or until Joan says, “Don’t you have to go to give a speech somewhere?” I was in Virginia last week with Episcopalians at a retreat. I walked over to the conference center and the sign on the door read, “This is a politics-free zone.” Well, that’s no fun. What do you talk about at mealtime if you can’t discuss politics? It was very quiet. For a while there, I thought they were Quakers.
Then a storm moved in across the Shenandoah Valley, and Delta couldn’t get me home, so I rented a car and drove up to Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where I was scheduled to be with Methodists. Having an extra day, I decided to drive there via Gettysburg to tour the battlefield, which I’d always wanted to see, ever since I was in the sixth grade in Olaf Ellis’s history class, who was so old I thought for years he had maybe fought at Gettysburg. Gettysburg, if you’ve never been there, is amazing and haunting and fascinating and mystifying, all at once. I stood on Little Round Top, where Joshua Chamberlain and the 20th Maine, beat back the advancing Confederates on three bloody days in April of 1963, and thought how terrifying it must have been to have been a poor, southern farm boy who’d never been ten miles from home, was now hundreds of miles from his mother and charging up the hill into the flesh-shredding guns of the 20th Maine.
Those boys, and they were just boys, had to wonder if what they were fighting for was really worth it. Ideally, we ponder these great existential questions before going to war. Is this really worth it? Is this how I want to spend my life? Is this the hill I want to die on? Because some ventures seem noble at first glance, but lose their luster when people start trying to kill you. “States-rights” seem far more noble, perhaps even Constitutional, than “defending a reprehensible system that enslaved an entire race of people.” At some point, I’m sure it occurred to some southern soldiers that the cause for which they were giving their last full measure of devotion wasn’t worth it.
After touring the battleground, I drove into Gettysburg, to the town itself, and visited the National Cemetery where Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address, five short months after the battle. After he gave his speech, people were quiet, and Lincoln worried his speech hadn’t been well-received, that its words would soon be forgotten. Instead, the words of the speech are sculpted in bronze, in Lincoln’s handwriting, on a monument honoring the event. I stood in the exact same spot where Lincoln had stood, which apparently wasn’t permitted, which I should have known since I had to climb a fence to do it, almost making me late for my speech in Lancaster, the words of which will soon be forgotten, if they haven’t already.
Later that day, I drove the backroads from Gettysburg east to Lancaster, past the old stone farmhouses and the miles of stone walls, contemplating the years of work that went into their creation, and the families who’d lived there, and thinking again about the things we give our lives for. Wouldn’t it be sad to be charging up your last and final hill and only then realize the causes for which you had lived, the goals toward which you had labored, weren’t worth it.
I’m so grateful that I have been in the church, and so thankful the church has taught me to think deeply about what is worth striving for and what is not. When I was a child in the Roman Catholic Church I was taught to love God and serve him only, but eventually noticed that meant doing what I was told by those who claimed to speak for God. Then I became an evangelical and was taught to accept Jesus as my personal Lord and Savior and believe the Bible, but eventually noticed that meant doing what I was told by those who claimed to speak for God. I was beginning to notice a pattern.
Now I am charging up the last hills of my life. Not the last hill, I hope, but far enough along the journey I can no longer the see the first hills I climbed. It is the time for reflection, and mid-course corrections, this weighing of one’s life. Are these pursuits worthy of the one life I’ve been given? Isn’t it odd that we ask eighteen year-olds heading off to college what they want to do with their lives, then never ask them again what they’re going to do with the one life they’ve been given?
I love the poem The Summer Day by Mary Oliver, who spent her one life putting into words our weightiest questions and deepest joys.
The Summer Day
by Mary Oliver
Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
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?
What are we going to do with our lives, with these wild and precious lives? Will we give our lives to causes and ventures worthy of us, or will we squander them on fleeting fancies and unbridled furies? Tell me, what is it we plan to do with our one wild and precious life?