Last week I watched the old Robin Williams movie, Dead Poets Society. In its most famous scene, the professor gathers a group of young prep students in front of pictures of a generation of students from a century earlier. Looking at the earnest youthful faces of men who were now long dead produced an eerie realization of both their vitality then and mortality now.
"Listen carefully lads. Do you hear what they're telling you?" whispered Williams. Then very slowly … "Carpe diem. Seize the day."
The students aren't quite sure how to respond. Some are embarrassed or bored by ancient history. Some seem inspired to live life more fully. Some are moved to reflect on mortality. The intent seems to be to grab life by the gullet and squeeze all that can be had from it. Live to the max. Carpe Diem!
When you are young and healthy, and as sportscaster Curt Gowdy used to say, "your whole future lies before you" (and where else would it lie?), carpe diem seems to be the right approach. A day is meant to be seized—held, managed, controlled, made to yield its potential to one who will master it.
Sometimes, out of confidence or arrogance or naiveté, that strategy can be applied even to ministry. Carpe ecclesia. Seize the church. Control and master and cause the outcomes that I want by sheer exercise of will and competence.
But a day is coming that cannot be seized.
The privilege of greeting
One of my longtime heroes in ministry has been Steve Hayner. I first met Steve more than 25 years ago through our mutual involvement at Fuller Seminary. He is brilliant (Ph.D from St Andrews), and positive, and humble, and incredibly personable; younger people in ministry flock to him because he has this way of making people feel not that he is terrifically important, but that they are terrifically important. Because to Steve, they are. He has had an amazing ministry including being the leader of Inter Varsity Christian Fellowship. He decided to step down from that because he said, "I felt like I'm really a Barnabas forced into being Paul," but then he went on to become president of Columbia Seminary—his Pauline abilities just keep trumping his Barnabine personality.
A few months ago he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. His posts (they can be read on Caring Bridge) are like reading devotional classics that have been written through the ages. One of his comments, reflecting on the love and care surrounding himself and his family, was what a privilege this journey has been. He used the word with no sense of irony. The journey simply looks this way to him.
In a more recent post, he wrote of the toll that the disease and its treatments have taken on his body and his strength. Energies that for years were able to flow to outward activities—to seizing this opportunity or that learning—were now required simply to survive and cope. Then he wrote a line that is unforgettable:
"I no longer am able to seize the day. But I'm working on greeting the day."
To greet the day, rather than attempting to seize it, is an act of humility. To recognize it as a gift. To acknowledge at sunrise that I cannot take for granted seeing the sunset. I am a steward of the day, not its owner. I thank God for a day to do ministry, to love my congregation, to study the Scriptures, to lead and teach and pastor with diligence and joy. I embrace my finitude. I confess my sin. I ask for strength.