I wasn't sure if he was waiting for me, or just waiting for anyone. He sat on an antique wooden bench and I almost walked by him without a second thought. He was elderly, so much so that for a minute I thought he was part of the ancient Roman baths I had been touring.
"Are you enjoying the museum?"
"It's nice," I said in a voice low enough to be considered a whisper.
"Where are you from?" I paused for a moment and found myself intrigued by his warm smile. His teeth formed two perfect rows but there was an unreal, porcelain quality to them. But as artificial as they were, there was also a certain genuine warm-heartedness and interest in that smile. "And maybe your name as well?" he added.
"Ashley," I answered almost involuntarily. "And I live in Cincinnati, Ohio. It's, well, I am from the U.S." I regretted my inability to articulate the things in my head the second the words spilled out of my mouth. Although I assumed his residency from the thick accent, I asked where he was from as well.
"Oh, right here in Bath, England." He smiled again. I began to see his pattern of speaking, then smiling. "Have you tried the spa water yet?"
"Umm...no. Actually, I just came in. I haven't had the chance," I replied.
He laughed and then explained to me how he didn't blame me; it wasn't too appetizing. The ancients believed it was rejuvenating and could possibly bring a person closer to the gods. Then he said something that struck me as odd: "But I'm not worried. I know where I'm going when I die."
I nervously smiled and purposefully did not acknowledge the reference to heaven to avoid the discussion that might come with it. I quickly asked him how long he had lived there to move the conversation to another subject.
"I've lived here all my life," he smiled. "It's funny to think that I've lived here and gone to church here all these years and I've never really accepted Jesus Christ until recently."
There was a brief silence while I looked at him. I knew about church; I grew up going to church every week for my entire life. "My dad is a minister," I said, thinking that maybe explaining that would deflect the direction of the conversation.
"That's lovely." He kept smiling. He paused for a moment and I could see him contemplating his next statement. "I went to church for 57 years. I can remember how I was always hoping I was saved. I was hoping..." His voice trailed off for a moment, and I could see him look into the air, the place where people look when they are thinking back on things they have done, what they have been through.
As he started to speak again, I didn't hear a word of it. Honestly, I was too stunned, maybe overwhelmed or grateful. Here I was at the beginning of my adult life, and he at the end of his. He had been going to church for all those years and never really knew what the outcome would be, whereas I had been blessed with the knowledge that once I made my commitment to God and was baptized into His family, I would be granted eternal life. For the first time it was put into perspective for me the gift God has given to His children—the gift of assurance. If we follow His laws and keep His commandments, then a day never has to go by when we wonder what will happen after we die.
I was drawn back into the conversation with this older gentleman by a question he asked. "So, Ashley, do you know where you are going or are you still hoping?"
I was surprised that he had been so direct, but what shocked me the most was that I couldn't just blow him off. Despite our differences in beliefs, there was a similarity. We both believed in the God of the Bible and Jesus Christ. It's what we believe about Jesus Christ and what God expects of Christians that sets us apart. Still I was surprised that there was a similarity in us when it came to making a commitment. Why did it take him 57 years to commit? Had he been going to church for all those years without purpose?
My understanding of Scripture might differ from his, but I understood the fundamental nature of his question. It really did make me think. I had all this information at my feet, I practiced it and I believed in it wholeheartedly. So what was I waiting for? What was holding me back? It seemed as if there were always so many things to do, so many insignificant happenings that had inadvertently become priorities and prevented me from taking a real step forward in my life. For the first time I saw it in black and white. I saw my real priority, and I saw the gift that God has given to all of His children.
In the United States, religious examples come from hokey television evangelists. Religion has become homogenized like milk; you might buy a different brand name, but it's all the same substance. People don't want church to get too personal, touch them too deeply or show them that changes need to be made in their lives because of the things they are doing wrong. That would require work. This elderly man was getting personal.
One of the principles of success taught by management guru Stephen Covey is to "begin with the end in mind." Here was a person whose life was coming to an end, and he regretted waiting over half a century to seriously consider what life was about.
The thought wasn't new, only new to me. Solomon penned some wise advice in the last chapter of Ecclesiastes: "Remember now your Creator in the days of your youth, before the evil days come and the years draw nigh when you shall say, I have no pleasure in them; before life ebbs, beauty fades, fortune fails, and poverty returns after prosperity... Remember Him before the silver cord is cut off and the golden bowl is broken and the pitcher is broken at the fountain or the wheel is broken at the cistern" (Ecclesiastes 12:1-2, 6, Lamsa translation). Here was a living example standing before me admitting he had waited until the end of his life to do what he should have done at the beginning.
"Ashley, let me say a prayer with you," he requested. Standing uneasily, I glanced over at my father who was only a few paces from me, watching the mist rise off the hot springs formerly used by the Romans.
Without lowering his head to a customary position of prayer, the old man tilted his head to one side and asked God to bring me close to Him and help me realize His importance in my life. He finished the short prayer with an "Amen," and sat smiling from the dark bench.
"Thank you." I extended my hand and after a polite shake continued on my way through the museum.
I learned something that day. Every person must develop an identity, a structure of values worthy of commitment and sacrifice, otherwise he will never have a system from which to operate. I would end up drifting away with the next trend if I didn't realize who I was and grab hold of the values that matter. I also saw that after all these years of developing, learning and being guided, it was time to take a step out on my own and claim my beliefs. There was no reason to wait around any longer.
The situation was heavy on my mind as I walked away. I wondered if he was waiting for me, or just waiting for anyone. VT