The Rev. Dr. Lewis Smedes is the author of a number of popular books, including Forgive and Forget, Caring and Commitment, and A Pretty Good Person. Lew is an ordained minister in the Christian Reformed Church and was Professor of Theology at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California, for many years. [Biographical information is correct as of the broadcast date noted.]
1921 - 2002
Things I've Learned on My Way to Eighty
First air date December 17, 2000
[Transcribed from tape and edited for clarity.]
Did you know that your grandchildren may live to be 120 years old? And that their children, your great grandchildren, may live to be a 160? Well, it’s true. This is what medical scientists are telling us these days. Think of it, when our grandchildren get to be eighty, they may just be having their very first mid-life crisis! Well, I'm going on eighty and I am so glad that I don’t have to have any more mid-life crises. And, as for living until I'm 160, well, I’m just not all that sure I want to live that long.
My father was only thirty-one when he died of a heart attack, much too young for a father to die and leave his young wife with five rambunctious little kids to take care of. I was the youngest. Only a couple of months old when he died. My mother, well, she was an immigrant girl, only thirty years old, all alone in a strange country, not an uncle or an aunt or a distant cousin on the whole continent. Talk about lonely. She spoke very broken English, had no job skills, no welfare checks for young widows in those days. So there was nothing for her to do but go to work scrubbing people's floors to put some meat and potatoes on our table.
Tough life! These days I wonder how in the world she did it. I can tell you this though, when we were kids we never heard a single word of complaint from her about how hard her life had been, not a word. She had a deep faith that somehow God had a soft spot in his heart for widows with little children. So in spite of everything, she was grateful and her gratitude made her a happy woman.
I think about her a lot these days and when I think about her, I’m reminded of some things, some deep things that I’ve been learning for myself as I grow older. I want to share a few of them with you, three of them to be exact. The first thing I’m relearning about myself is this...
I’m not a saint, never have been, never expect to be.
Not all that different from you, I suppose. There are bad things about me that only God and I and my wife know about and neither of us likes. And there are some good things too that nobody else needs to know about. The good things and the bad things are all mixed together in me; sometimes I’m not even able to tell them apart. Some days I lean a bit more to the good side. Other days I tilt more to the bad side. And I hate some of that bad stuff in me, but this only makes me the more thankful for God's amazing grace.
My mother was like that. Today people would say that she didn’t have enough self-esteem. Well, I think she was one of the great women of the world, but she just thought of herself all her life as a poor old sinner saved by grace.
And I’ll tell you something else: I’m glad that I have relearned that I’m not a big shot saint because seeing the blotches and blemishes on my own heart makes some good things easier for me. For instance, I’m not as quick as I used to be to jump on my high horse and point my finger at my neighbors. I’m glad about that, but there’s something even better: if I were not aware of the bad and ugly shadows inside of my own soul, I might never have known the amazing grace of God. People who think they’re all sugar and spice and everything nice never get to know the most important thing anybody on earth can ever know. It's something that I’ve been relearning on my way to 80.
The grace of God is the most wonderful thing in the whole world.
The God who has the whole world in his hands has grace for the whole world in his heart. I’m going to say that again so you won't miss it. The God who has the whole world in his hands has grace for the whole world in his heart. For me, that’s the best thing that anybody who’s getting on in life can ever learn -- or any young person for that matter.
Well, what's so terrific about grace? I’ll tell you. I'll tell you one thing: for me, it gives me courage and confidence to know that the Maker of the Universe is on my side and that the Judge of the whole world accepts me just the way I am. With all my blots and blemishes. The bad with the good all mixed together. He accepts me, all of me, with no strings attached.
Without the grace of God, I think I’d be haunted by a brooding, guilty conscience about some of the harmful things I’ve said and done in my lifetime. But with the grace of God, I can look myself straight in the eyes and say to myself: "Nothing bad you have ever done can get God to reject you." And nothing can get God to accept you more willingly than he accepts you right now.
Some days when we get sick and tired of trying to be good enough to be acceptable to other people, fed up with trying to make sure people like us and accept us, God's grace just may slip inside our ears and whisper to our hearts: "You are already accepted. You are accepted. You’re accepted. And you will never, never be rejected." That, that is what is so amazing about grace.
Here I am almost eighty years old and I’m still learning, still discovering that God's amazing grace really is the best thing in the whole, wide world.
And that brings me to the third thing I’m relearning these days. Listen:
Gratitude is the best tonic there is for old age blues.
Anybody who has drunk half way deep of grace is one of the happier persons in the world. I have never known a grateful person who was not a happy person, too. Not one. A grateful person cannot be an unhappy person. In fact, gratitude is the happiest feeling you will ever have in your life.
I learned this with a special wallop a few years ago. Let me tell you about it.
My wife Doris and I were winding up a sabbatical at St. John's University in Collegeville, Minnesota. It was getting near Christmas time, cold, real cold, and a wind chill factor of 40 below zero, and it was the morning for us to pack up and head on home to California. Well, I had not slept well that night and was not feeling quite right in the morning. And Doris, alert to how I looked, put on her boots and went out to ask the folks at the University how to get a doctor, just in case I needed one. Well, when she came back she found me lying on the kitchen floor, belly up, my face a battleship gray, eyes wide open but not looking at anything. I was, to be blunt about it, looking very convincingly dead. Doris did all the things she had learned in first aid class, and then called an ambulance. The paramedics loaded me aboard and she climbed aboard, too; and we skidded along the icy road to the emergency room of the hospital in St. Cloud.
There they found that my lungs were peppered with blood clots, a killer situation for sure. They told me later that I had no better than one chance in twenty to pull through. But a few mornings after I arrived, a gentle type of physician -- from Lake Wobegon, I think! -- leaned over my bed and said to me: "Mr. Smedes, congratulations! You have survived something more deadly than the worst heart attack conceivable." Well, I had not been planning on dying so I was not all that surprised to be alive, and I closed my eyes and went back to sleep.
A few nights later, however, in that melancholy hush that settles over the intensive care ward in a hospital at two o'clock in the morning, it happened. No warning. No preparation. Alone in the dark, my spirit was possessed by gratitude. It came on me like a seizure; a fit of frenzy; of pure, unadulterated joy. I became an instant Pentecostal! I waved my arms and shook my hands in a delirium of gratitude.
I must tell you, it was not that I had beaten the 20 to 1 odds against my survival. That wasn’t it. It was just the incredible gift of life that I’m given every moment. I felt like a fragile bubble floating in the air, held aloft by nothing but the breath of God. I knew that a little pin prick could break the bubble, and will one day, and I’d be a goner. But God was keeping for now, keeping on breathing the breath of life into me. And life keeps coming. It won't always come, but for this day, for now, for right now, it’s enough.
Life is such a delicious, miraculous gift. I had been so busy doing things, saying things, that I’d almost forgotten how mysterious and how amazing it is to be alive in this world of such incredible beauty. And now the joy of it came to me full force in a whirlwind of gratitude and all I could say, over and over again, were the words of Psalm 103: "Bless the Lord. Bless the Lord, O my soul, and everything that is in me bless his Holy Name."
Well, looking back on that experience, I can tell you for sure that nothing, nothing beats gratitude for sheer joy. It’s the best feeling you or I will ever have. Better than a warm bed on a bad night, better than falling in love with the most beautiful person in the world, better than hearing the most beautiful music ever played, better than becoming a millionaire, even better than watching the Cubs or the White Sox win the World Series. Gratitude is the ultimate happiness. It comes down to this: gratitude is the best thing you can ever feel.
So now you know three important things that I have been learning all over again as I have been getting older. I want to repeat them for you. First: I’m no saint; you can find sins and failures on every page of the script of my life story. Second: I am totally, unconditionally accepted by the grace of God; accepted, totally; totally accepted, never to be rejected -- not ever -- in spite of my faults and failures. And then the third: Being grateful to God for his amazing grace of forgiveness and acceptance is the best feeling that any human being on this earth can ever have.
I’m glad that I’ve been given a chance to know and enjoy these bottom-line realities about myself and about God. And I do hope that you know and that you enjoy them, too.
Conversation with Lewis Smedes
Floyd Brown: Your mother was a wonderful lady, wasn't she?
Lewis Smedes: She was great. She didn't think she was that great and that made her even greater.
Brown: Amazing grace saves me, you, everyone. It's still hard for everybody to accept, isn't it?
Smedes: Yes. I have two things to say about that, Floyd. I think that some of us have a hunch that we're just not good enough to be so totally accepted when, in fact, God keeps on saying to us, "You don't have to be good enough." That’s what grace is all about: accepting you when you're not good enough.
Brown: Well, it’s a wonderful, comforting thought to know that.
Smedes: That's the Good News. That is the Good News of the Gospel of Christ to all the world. The judge maker of this whole universe accepts you right now just the way you are.
Brown: What a wonderful thought. Thank you.