I met Donald Grayston for the first time at a party almost a quarter of a century ago. And I remember it vividly. Don had this generous energy and a wide smile to match it– a smile in which he opened up his mouth to show an inch or more of gap between his upper and lower teeth, a smile that suggested he was on the verge of laughter, a smile that suggested he was drinking in the beauty of the world around him. And while Don was appreciably older than most of the people at the party – I suppose he would’ve been in his early or mid fifties back then, so eight or ten years older than I am now – he seemed entirely at home in the youthful, playful energy of that room.
I don’t know if it was that night at the party or shortly thereafter that I learned that Don was a Priest. And that knowledge was an instance of cognitive dissonance for me, of confusion. I didn’t have anything to do with church back then, and on the rare occasion when I did think about faith, I reckoned that church was anti-intellectual, judgmental, humourless, and frequently immoral; when I read the news or turned on the TV, I constantly saw churches on the wrong side of the great moral issues of our time. What did it mean that someone like Don – who was fun and smart and compassionate – was a part of church? I started to wonder if there was more to faith than I had allowed.
Don Grayston engaged in evangelism, in other words, by being out of the closet as a Christian and by being Don Grayston. He never handed me a pamphlet, never knocked on my door wearing a suit and tie, never gave me a lecture, never threatened me with hell. What he did was to live with enough curiosity and generosity and compassion and joy that, like the woman at the next table in When Harry Met Sally, I looked at him and said:
I want what he’s having.
I am, in large part, a Christian because of Don’s evangelism. When I read the Bible for the first time and I got to the Gospel of John, in which Jesus makes his first appearance at a party, I said:
Oh! Just like Don Grayston!
I met Donald Grayston for the last time just after Christmas in 2016. He was in the hospital, quarantined into one of those rooms with negative air pressure so as to keep the germs from escaping into the rest of the hospital. I had to wear a mask and a gown and latex gloves when I sat with him. Don was frail and struggling to breathe. The doctors thought that he might have tuberculosis or some other radical respiratory ailment. And while Don he subsequently rallied and got to live for most of 2017, using the time for writing and prayer and visits with friends and activism and maybe even a little holy mischief – Don died on October 23rd – on that day in December, it looked like Don was within days or weeks of the end of his life.
Maybe because of the intensity of his illness, maybe because it was the last time that I saw him, our conversation back in December feels in my memory like a farewell, it has the ring of earthly finality to it. What we shared felt on that day a whole lot like a deathbed conversation.
This is the day on which we remember all the saints, who from their labours rest. And because of that, I’d like to spend a little time with you this morning wondering with you about that final talk with one of the newest saints, with Don. Don and I visited for maybe an hour on that day. And one of the big things that he wanted to talk about was regret. He didn’t feel a need to formally confess any of what we might call sins – but he really did want to sacramentally name, to have a holy context in which to name, his regrets.
And so I listened.
What was amazing to me as I listened to Don speak was how gently he held his regrets. Don spoke without bitterness. His regrets were, like his illness, something that he could hold in his hands, that he could name, that, yes, he could be sad about. But his regrets weren’t something that owned him or controlled him or obsessed him or crowded out the joy in his life.
When I spoke with Don last on the telephone, maybe a month ago, I asked him if I could share his regrets publicly. I knew that I was going to be speaking at his funeral, and it seemed to me that what he had named in the hospital was a kind of epitaph, that what he had shared with me on that day as good a sermon as I could hope to come up with. I wanted to make sure, however, that telling you what he told me wouldn’t mean violating our confidence or hurting anyone. But Don immediately said it was okay, that it was fine.
And so here are the late-life regrets of Donald Grayston. They are all brief.
One. Don said that, when his children were small, he had the opportunity to take his whole family to live and work in a third world country for close to a year. But that they decided against going. Don told me that he regretted the choice not to go – and this is an observation that, as a parent myself, has stuck with me – because a year in in a third world country would have inoculated his children against consumerism forever. Stop and think about that one for a second.
Two. He said that he regretted that he had, as he put it, dabbled in many things but focused really intently on none of them. Don saw himself as a pretty good professor (after he left parish ministry, he taught at Simon Fraser University in the humanities department) and a pretty good Thomas Merton scholar, but as a master in neither field. The problem, as he put it – and I think that this is a challenge shared by many really talented people – is that he found everything, everything to be just so interesting.
Three. Don said that he regretted that neither he nor his former wife were willing or able to name sooner than they did the reality that their marriage had died.
Four. And here is an echo of the regret about the third world country, it would’ve taken place around the same time: Don regretted that he had the opportunity to go teach at a major European university but, with a young family, the idea seemed overwhelming. And so they didn’t go.
There was a time when we understood the late-life words of a person to be a really big deal, when we understood them to be a vital source of wisdom, an insight into the holy. As a culture, we’ve mostly forgotten that today. I think that we have forgotten deliberately. We have forgotten that because we are a culture that denies aging and denies death, and to listen carefully about what someone wants to say as they approach death is to sabotage our denial.
I’d like to see if we can remember that practice this morning, if we can ask the question:
Don was a teacher – not just at SFU, not just in the parish, but across his life. What do Don’s regrets have to teach us? What does his relationship with them have to teach us?
Well, let’s notice the themes that run through them. (Don had a fifth regret, by the way, but he told me that regret number five was too personal to share with you. I will say only that it the fifth regret is consistent in nature with the other four.) Each of these regrets is about loving more, about risking more, about, as Holocaust Survivor and author, Viktor Frankl put it, saying yes to life in spite of everything.
Notice the regrets that aren’t in the list. None of the regrets are about how Don had the opportunity to buy stock in Apple or Nike but he passed it up, about how he could’ve become rich but missed his chance. None of them are about how he might’ve become famous. None of them are about how he hadn’t achieved worldly power.
What Don regretted were those instances when he had the opportunity to become more fully alive and to invite those around him to become more fully alive and he didn’t say yes. Even the regret about not naming the reality that his marriage had died – to my ear, the saddest, the most painful of the regrets – is a regret about not offering real freedom to his spouse and to himself sooner than he did; sometimes, you and I mistake delaying a conversation like that for compassion, we convince ourselves that we are being compassionate by delaying telling another person the deep truth. But as Jesus says – as Don affirmed in his regrets – the truth that will set you free.
On All Souls and All Saints, we name our grief, our deep sorrow at the reality of death. And we proclaim as well the resurrection. We ask:
Grave, where is your victory?
Death, where is your sting?
In the Christian tradition, resurrection is not only something that happened to Jesus almost 2000 years ago – although don’t misunderstand me, the empty tomb, along with the Incarnation and the cross, makes up the cornerstone of our faith. And nor is it restricted to something that we hope will happen in the future, after we die. Rather, in Christian practice, resurrection is a lived and ongoing reality. It is something in which we can participate right now.
Don’s conversation with me in the hospital room was a conversation about resurrection. It was a conversation in which, without bitterness, he named his regrets. He named them as one might name the scars on one’s body. Here are things that hurt, that maybe are hard to look at. But here as well are things that we dare not wish away. Because these regrets, these scars, well they woven inescapably into our story. Like grief, these regrets, these scars, are evidence of having lived and having loved. To wish them away is to wish our history away, to wish our very lives away.
Don had come to understand his scars as his teachers, as something for which, in spite of everything, he could say thanks.
Or maybe scars are the wrong metaphor. Maybe Don’s regrets were like words written into the book of his life, a book filled with jubilation and sorrow in equal measure. Or maybe that too is wrong. Maybe, to borrow an image from the poet, Mary Oliver, Don’s regrets were a box full of darkness that, after years, he had come to understand as a gift.
In our conversation in the hospital, Don lay his regrets down. He placed them on the rectangular table that you can swing over a hospital bed. We prayed over them. And then he gave them to God. And then, with a gap of an inch or more between his upper and his lower teeth, Donald Grayston smiled.