Ron Wilson, executive director of EPA from 1992 to 2002, recently sent this letter to some of his friends. We asked for permission to post it for the rest of the EPA family, many of whom have fond memories of Ron from his many years with the organization.
. . . you may be on this list because I have shamefully neglected keeping in touch with you and, I owe you at least a 48 page letter. (Don’t worry; this isn’t it.) The rest of you are receiving this because I am bold enough to believe that you might want to hear a few of the observations and musing I have arrived at after 79 years and 6 months on this spinning-too-fast-for-me planet.
I want to make clear up front, however, that this is not a lament or a grievance. I am content to be old and getting older. I look forward to the future as well as to each day I climb (sometimes slower than others) out of bed. I like my life, and while if I had the power to arrange it as I’d prefer, I’d make some changes, but it is more than I deserve and is a confirmation of God’s grace, in which I have put my trust. Since you will surely pass through theses stages, if you have not already, you may benefit by reflecting on these observations and my responses to them.
Old age, I have noted, is a series of losses. Most noticeable both to yourself and others are the physical losses: the print on the newspaper gets smaller, and you can no longer read the directions on some of the products you buy. A magnifying glass is a must. You find yourself continually saying, “what?” And when there is a lot of background noise in a room, you struggle to carry on a conversation. You’ve lost some of your fine motor skills, and you need help with the small buttons on the sleeves of your dress shirt, and you’re not as sure on your feet as you used to be. You need more sleep; you can’t lift boxes you could easily lift a few years ago, and you have those senior moments when you can’t recall a friend’s name or whether you’ve told your friends the same story two times already.
Then there are the circumstances in which you’ve lost something you valued: you’re not gainfully employed. You have given up driving (or reluctantly given it up at the insistence of your family). Then you learn about the need for volunteers for Habitat for Humanity or visitors in homes for seniors or people to help with a church dinner or at a summer camp for kids. You think, “Oh, I’d like to do that. Then reality jumps up and smacks you. You realize that you’d probably be more trouble than help to the organizers. Your volunteer days are over.
The sum total of all these losses is the loss of independence. And my how we value our independence! (There are at least a dozen good sermons in that thought, but fortunately for you I’m not a preacher.) We are so addicted to performance and in looking good that when we can no longer achieve recognition because we can’t perform, we struggle to cope. We want to do for ourselves, and we’re caught between feeling patronized when someone offers some small assistance and being thankful that someone sees and cares.
(What was it Jesus told Peter? “Very truly I tell you, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.”
This process, you might have noticed, is the reverse of being born when we could do little except bawl and wave our arms. Slowly we grew less dependent and we learned to walk, to feed ourselves, to explain to the world what we want. Notice how that is turned around in old age.
In all these losses, I try to remember that God is more interested in who I am than in what I do. He doesn’t need any help from me. (I’ve already messed up too many things in this life.) What he wants for me now is what he has always wanted: for me to become like him. So it shouldn’t come as a great surprise to me to realize that he has arranged my life to make it easier for that to happen. I have all this discretionary time that I can spend reading the Word and praying and focusing on knowing God and trusting him. And as I do that, I believe, the Spirit will accomplish the changes in me in the form of fruit—love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. It came to me as an astounding revelation that I may have more ministry to the people God sends into my life now in my old age than in all those years that I could actively do.
Henri Nouwen put it this way:
“Jesus moved in his life from action to passion. For several years he was extremely active preaching, teaching, and helping, always surrounded by large crowds and always moving from place to place. But in the Garden of Gethsemsane, after his last supper with his disciples, he was handed over to those who resented him . . . to be the object of actions by others. From that moment, Jesus no longer took any initiatives. Everything was done to him. . . . The mystery of Jesus’ life is that he fulfilled his vocation not through action but by becoming the . . . passive subject of what other people did to him.”
Nouwen goes on to say that we will find fulfilment in a similar kind of dependence. Fruitfulness comes through dependence which we too often experience as uselessness. “Believing that our lives come to fulfilment in dependence requires a tremendous leap of faith,” he writes. We try to avoid it at all costs, but when we can submit to it, we experience God’s strength working through our weakness.
Now here’s where I need your help. (You knew there was a catch someplace.) For while I have this discretionary time, which can only grow longer as the days of my life grow shorter, I find dozens of frivolous and unprofitable ways to use my time rather than seek God’s presence. So if you’re of a mind to pray for me, please pray that I will develop a ravenous hunger to know and enjoy God and live in dependence on his strength, not my own, as I have for most of my life.
So what else is going on in my life?
Mary and I have a 21-month-old grandson, David Alexander Crabb, who we get to see often and is the best entertainment in our lives these days. Clint and Laura have given us a 2-month old grandson, Andrew Manning Orebaugh, but he lives in Greensboro, so we don’t get to see him as often. Then there is our almost-14 year old grandson, Maxwell Paul Wilson, who, with his parents, will be visiting with us the last weekend of this month. He’s a bright young man, and since he lives in Milwaukee we rarely get to see him.
Sometime my friends ask if I am writing these days, and the answer is no. I’ve decided that the last thing this world needs is one more book, and I have no passion to add to the glut.
I spend some of this free time I’m talking about at the gym, three days a week, and I accompany that with a handful of pills each day. So, by grace, I am in relatively good health.
I am an incurable bibliophile, and I spend an inordinate amount of time reading, mostly on my Kindle. (Books will not die, but the digital world will form them into shapes unknown.)
Mary is working for a local community development ministry, so I have taken up the task of cooking, and I love it—although I feel badly because she loves to cook and misses it.
So now you have inside information, in case you wonder or if anyone asks: “Whatever happened to Ron Wilson?”
Finally, to bring this letter to a long-overdue end, I’ll sing to you one of my favourite Irish songs, “The Parting Glass”:
Oh all the money that e're I spent,
I spent it in good company.
And all the harm I've ever done
Alas it was to none but me.
And all I've done for want of wit
To memory now I can't recall.
So fill to me the parting glass,
Goodnight and joy be with you all,
Oh all the comrades e're I had
Are sorry now I'm going away.
And all the sweethearts e're I had
Would wish me one more day to stay.
But since it falls unto my lot
That I should rise and you should not.
I'll gently rise and I'll softly call
Goodnight and joy be with you all.
Love, joy and peace . . . Ron