Yesterday I preached at a church where I served twenty-two years ago as their summer youth worker. It was through a program called Youth Corps that paired college students with small, usually rural churches for a summer of service. The church gave the worker housing and half of the small salary and the state convention paid the other half. If you talk to folks in Baptist churches in North Carolina, ministers and lay people, it is overwhelming how many of them served in Youth Corps!
I showed up as an eighteen year old (turning nineteen a couple weeks later) with no idea what I was doing with the confidence only an eighteen year old can have. I worked with the children, youth and senior adults in the church. The people and families of this church hold a special place in my heart and yesterday, I preached their homecoming service.
Returning to this home from my past led me to do a lot of reflection. I could not help but think back to that eighteen year old and the way she thought her life would unfold. Here’s a hint, it did not resemble much of the life I am now living. And while the truth is, I would not have it any other way, grief bubbles up for the lives I thought would be mine.
In college and into my early twenties, I thought of my future like a jigsaw puzzle. One of those really big ones with lots of little pieces. I felt like I had to sit down at the puzzle and figure out which one went where. There were extra pieces. There were pieces that might be able to fit if I pushed hard enough and made it work but it was my responsibility to figure out which ones God intended to go together to create the perfect picture. (I now just get exhausted reading that last sentence) The perfect future, because there was just one perfect future for me at that time. I did not know what it looked like, though I had some strong ideas, but I was terribly afraid of getting it wrong. I was told that you had to guard yourself against wanting “less than God’s best.”
Remember in It’s the Great Pumpkin Charlie Brown, Linus is looking for the most sincere pumpkin patch around. The Great Pumpkin will visit the most sincere pumpkin patch and he is sitting there waiting for the visit. I have learned that God’s plan or God’s will does not unfold as I struggle to figure out which puzzle piece fits perfectly to create one perfect picture. Instead, God shows up in lots of small ways when I have a sincere heart. Like the sincere pumpkin patch, when I am still, when I am sincere in my desire for God’s will in my life, God reveals the next right thing to do. I’ve also learned that I do not believe in one complete picture that when I get one piece out of place, the whole thing falls apart. I think that would make God pretty cruel and I’ve learned to see that God has more grace that I gave God credit for earlier on.
My life has not turned out the way I would have imagined but I would not have wanted it any other way. I really cannot look back over my life, at the major decisions I have made, and find something I would change. Some seasons have been hard but God has used each one, has redeemed them for a purpose. However, it does not mean that I do not find myself grieving those other lives. Those other lives that included marrying young, having a family young, taking other jobs, moving to other locations, getting a different education. Sometimes I grieve the lives that I did not choose or the circumstances that did not choose me.
Does any of that sound familiar to you? We have to give ourselves space to grieve what could have been. It is done with a knowledge that those lives would not have been perfect either. It can be done even knowing you would not go back and change a thing but their is still somehow grief. And with a grief, there is a letting go. It gives space for a release that allows us to move forward.
I just got an email with a profound quote. It was trying to sell me something but it is still powerful, “It’s never too late to be what you might have been.” That may be a little over-stated but when you visit that grief, are their pieces of those other lives that fit where you are now.? Are their children that could be adopted or loved like they were your own? Is their a degree or training? Is their a change in your career path? Is there some place you always wanted to travel? Something you’ve always wanted to learn how to do?
We do just get one shot at this life. My advice would be to get up from the table that has that huge, confusing puzzle in front of you. Go sit in a pumpkin patch with a sincere heart and listen. And if you find yourself down the path of life a little more, ask yourself what was on those other paths that you could still add to the one you are on? Lean into the grief. Feel it….and then let it go and keep doing the next right thing.
I like these words: “grief bubbles up for the lives I thought would be mine.” I still grapple with the idea of a one perfect future. On some days I console myself with its nonexistence. On other days I am too hard on myself because a part of me yearns strongly for it. But, I’m sure, someday it will all fall into place.