Letter To Self … 40 years later
Editor’s Note: For this year’s Profs ‘n Stein, the students suggested that professors write a letter to their 25-year-old selves to read to the group. Here is a recent one, written by Dr. Timothy Saleska, Professor of Exegetical Theology and Dean of Ministerial Formation
I am dashing off this letter to you from the downside of age 65. Let me clarify this a little bit. I am you writing to you. Or maybe, now that I think about it, I should say that I am me writing to you. . . or maybe I am me writing to me. . .Uh, I am definitely me, but I am writing to you who is also me. Get it? Whatever—I will just use “you” and “me” before I drive both of us crazy. This letter comes to you from the autumn of the 65th year of my life. And so, it is the “autumn” of your life in two senses of the word. (By the way, I hope you are somewhat relieved that you at least make it this far. What happens from here on out I have no idea.)
I decided to write to you on your 25th birthday, smack dab in the middle of the summer, July 15th to be exact, in the year of our Lord 1981, as you wind up your vicarage year at St. John’s Lutheran Church in Seward, Nebraska.
I am writing this letter by hand because, well, it’s old school, and that is how I roll. There is something soothing about writing in longhand that a computer will never be able to replace. “Computer?” you may ask, quizzically, when you read this. Yes. Personal Computer. The bane of our present existence. But that’s another story. Suffice it to say that my first bit of advice is to enjoy the few remaining years in your life before words like “personal computer,” “email,” “cell phone,” “digital,” “text messaging,” “emoji,” “Facebook,” “Twitter,” “Instagram,” and on and on become part of your daily parlance, and before all these things become obvious necessities in your life. (Though they really aren’t necessary, IMO, that is, In My Opinion.) Yes, our abbreviations have drastically changed over the past decades. You have no idea the abbreviations we have to deal with.
I know that you are rather relieved that it looks like you are going to make it through your vicarage relatively unscathed. Congrats! It was the first full-time job you every had. And it actually forced you to stop goofing off your way through life for a change. (Remember pious Karen, the girl that was part of your paint crew last summer? At one point, in total exasperation, she told you that she couldn’t believe you were studying to be a pastor. And that was after your 2nd full year at the seminary! Ha. If she could only see you now.)
The only big issue you faced was food, since you didn’t cook, couldn’t cook, and didn’t want to learn how to cook. But you could, would, did, have no problem mooching a meal from compassionate members at every possible turn. And TV dinners were pretty good too. But enough of your memories. That’s old news. Let’s look ahead.
First, I know you think that your vicarage year was the highlight of your seminary education and a highpoint of your life, and you are certain now that your 4th year is going to be an anti-climactic, soul sucking, nine-month dust bowl until Call Day and permanent liberation from the education jail sentence.
Sorry to burst that scintillating bubble. Your fourth year is going to be the most exciting, head over heels, heart thumping, roller coaster of a year. Vastly different than anything you have heretofore experienced. That’s because you are going to meet the woman of your dreams. You will see her standing before you, and you will actually think, “Hey! This is the woman I’ve been dreaming about.”
By the way, this will be the one and only time of your life that you will swear God is talking to you. And not in the still, small voice of Elijah fame. Au contraire, he will speak to you in the hurricane and the earthquake and the fire that is this woman that you can barely talk to because your normally obnoxiously chatty mouth will have grown uncomfortably dry. Besides that, as you gaze at her, you will suddenly fear that you might be having a heart attack because it will feel as if your heart is beating right out of your chest.
Trust me. This moment will happen to you. In just a few weeks from today–your 25th birthday–it will happen. So, I am begging you, PLEASE DON’T BLOW IT! (You know what an idiot you are about these things.) So please—don’t screw this one up. My life—your life—depends on it. Virtually all your future happiness is hanging from that thin thread of chance and circumstance that has momentarily brought you into proximity with each other. (Ok. I’m being a little overly dramatic here. But seriously, don’t mess this up!)
I don’t think I am going to tell you what happens. No more details. I don’t want you easing up when the pressure is on and making some stupid mistake that costs you the game. Just be ready.
I will let you know, however, that—in summary—you will graduate and get a call and even manage to get married.
Now obviously, in talking about what comes next in all this, I have to be very selective in the details I want to share. After all, 40 years is a lot of ground to cover. So, I’m going to pick one thing—maybe two—to warn you about. Maybe it’ll help. Maybe not. But at least I’m not going to rain down advice from the future, like a mother-in-law who decides to move in–to the spare bedroom of your two-bedroom apartment.
First, I’m going to tell you about the one choice I made that I am still ambivalent about—even after all these years and all that has happened. I still wonder from time to time if I did the right thing.
You only dimly realize this now, at your age, but you have this latent driver in you that has been sitting idly by, waiting to spring into action. By “driver” think, “Jockey whipping the hind quarters of his horse so that he can win a race.” (BTW, If any of you listening to this letter do not have this driver in you, I say, “Praise the Lord and have a wonderful life.”) But I did—and still do–to a large extent.
That driver started to relentlessly dig his spurs into me when I took my first call (not going to tell you where) and at the same time decided to go to graduate school (not going to tell you where or—in heavens name why—I did such a thing). My driver is a cold-hearted perfectionist who never backed off the demands he made of me—the demand to be a perfect pastor—the best preacher—awesome teacher—fun-loving youth leader, loved and respected by all. And also, the demand to be a top student in a difficult field at a top notch, demanding school that had opened up a whole new world to me that I had never before or since experienced—nothing like it in my life. To do one of these things right is hard enough. To do both of them at the same time and be perfect at both . . . well. . . let’s just say there is a price to be paid. And I paid it.
You see, I still feel ambivalent about what I did because on the one hand, it led me to this place that I have been for going on 24 years now. This has been so much fun and filled with so much blessing that I shudder to think of my life without it. Without my selfish, overly focused, demanding driver, I would not be here now.
On the other hand, as I said, there is ALWAYS a price to be paid for such foolish pride and narrow vision. The price you will pay? Well, all I will tell you is that from where you stand now, you have about eight more years remaining in which you will not have one day of worry about your health, what you eat, how much you sleep, or what you do for exercise. Eight more years in which you feel invincible. Eight years in which your driver will convince you that you can do it all.
And then, in one, single day that will all change. And from that point on, every day you will worry about your health. You will ponder every bite of food you put into your mouth. You will adhere to a rigid schedule of doctor’s appointments, diet, medicine juggling and proper boundary setting. Your driver will have to be severely and forcibly subdued because mortality will have gotten its first icy grip around your ankles, and once he comes, you can never shake him off. You see! Good and Evil, obscurely mixed together and impenetrable to me—to this very day.
So, that’s my first warning. Pay heed to it. I don’t have any advice. But I hope you can figure it out better than I did. If this frightens you a little, maybe that’s good. Fear and humility fit well together and are probably the appropriate postures for God’s servants and those called to work in his fields.
Here is my second observation, and it concerns your dad—and the enigma of time. From where you stand, I know you think that your parents will live forever. Our dad is indominable. A bright sun on the field of your life. But the years pass more swiftly than you think. I want to warn you as you start your ministry. You put your head down and go. You look up and wonder a little where your thirties went. But you tell yourself not to worry. You are young. You have lots of time. You put your head back down and go. The forties come and go a little more quickly. No matter. You still feel young and strong. The fifties go even more quickly. Your kids are grown up and out of the house, and you still remember their first day of pre-school. (Wouldn’t you LOVE to know more about your family! Nope. That you will have to find out for yourself.)
Wow. You start to look back a little. You start—just a hint—to wonder what’s going on here? But, even now, you are sure you still have lots of time—to make up for lost time. You are good at compartmentalizing. You are good at looking at the bright side and very bad at thinking about the consequences of some of the patterns you have developed in your life.
And then . . . there is that call in the night. A life of love has been taken. It is a shock that will shake you, and it will take some time for you to come to grips with it. But now, finally, you will look back hard. Really look back . . . and now with more than a little regret that you didn’t MAKE MORE TIME. That you didn’t always put your visits as lower priority. That you had opened your eyes and looked up way before you finally did.
I can’t save you from this. Death is death. It comes. It comes. But if you can, I would urge you to make time—not just hope to find time . . . sometime. Pray that God would “teach you to number your days that you might gain a heart of wisdom,” much sooner than he taught me.
I also want to tell you something a close friend told me as I was dealing with my grief. I’m telling you this so that you can take it into your own ministry and remember it as you walk with people in their own struggle with loss. It may help you to not be so afraid of facing the grief and pain of another person so much (sic). My friend said this, “Grief is the fair but bitter price we pay for loving and being loved.” Remember that. Move from grief to all the memories of love and take some solace in that move even as we wait for the Lord to deliver us from this veil of tears.
Ok. I’ve received a tap on my shoulder that it’s time to close this window into your future. Your prophetic voice must soon grow silent.
But before I go, I need to correct a misperception that the rest of my words may have created. I’ve been sort of a downer today. (It’s one of those days, I guess.) But for this, I apologize because your life will be anything but gloomy, sad, daunting, joyless.
In spite of my somber tones, I can assure you (after all, in this case I DO know what I am talking about). I can assure you that your life and your ministry are going to be a blast. Super fun, stimulating, joyous, richly blessed. All the challenges notwithstanding, the Lord is going to “establish the work of your hands,” as Moses wrote. I look back, and I can see again all the wondrous things God has done for you. Never fear. Look forward to year four with great anticipation. Look forward to your ministry with excitement and hope. After all, you do walk with the Lord, and you have his promise. Go with him. Shalom.
Your closest friend,
Matthew M Tooman November 22, 2021