I remember once, back in the early 1990’s, I was riding in the car with my father, who was driving me home from my job at the U.S. Postal Service. He was talking about how he never really had a father-son relationship with his own father. Then he said something I’ll never forget. He said, “I’ll do what I can for as long as I can. And someday when I am gone, then I won’t be able to do anymore.” I didn’t realize it at the time, but my father was doing much more than just telling me that he cares for me and explaining to what lengths he was willing to go to in order to show it. My father was teaching me a lesson about total self-sacrifice for the sake of another.
The lesson was one that I did not learn right away. At the same time it’s also one I that might not have learned at all if not for my father. He sowed seeds during those rides together back and forth to work. And, fortunately for me, over time the seeds took root and grew.
I should back up a bit here. The reason my father was driving me home was because I had gotten my driver’s license suspended for driving under the influence. That six month period was an exasperating experience, a humbling experience, and, luckily for me, a learning experience. For six months my dad drove me to work and then came back and picked me up to bring me home. And during our long talks while driving back and forth my father planted a lot of seeds.
My father’s mother and father, my grandparents, were both Italian immigrants who did not speak English all that well. My father was born in 1919 and his mother passed away when he was 3 years old. He grew up during the great depression and had to drop out of school when he was in the eighth grade to go to work and earn money to help the family survive. So he knew something about self-sacrifice.
From self-centered to self-sacrificing
These days, some 25 years later, things are very different. I am in recovery and I no longer drink. My father also passed away in 2012 at the age of 92. And I no longer work for the Postal Service. But most importantly, I have learned not only how to give of myself for another but why that is so important.
Eventually I ended up in the 12-Step program of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). And as I made my way through its 12 steps, I began to notice the freedom that comes from sobriety and recovery, especially spiritual freedom. By being more in tune with God’s will for my life, I got more in tune with myself, both who I am and who I had the potential to be. This involved beginning to care about someone or something other than myself, and to not be so self-centered anymore.
It says in Philippians 2:3-4 “Do nothing out of selfishness or out of vainglory; rather, humbly regard others as more important than yourselves, each looking out not for his own interests, but everyone for those of others.” These are truly wise words.
As I thought about what was really important in life my own life began to transform. At the 12-Step meetings people would come up to me afterwards and tell me how inspiring my words were to them. It occurred to me that only God’s grace could accomplish something like that. For if somebody was inspired in their recovery by something I said or shared, then a real change has truly taken place.
The seed takes root
In the process of growing in recovery, the changes that were taking place in me started to solidify and become a normal and permanent part of who I am. I started to realize that I really was a different person with a new outlook on life. I was more interested in seeing what I could give than in what I could get. As they say in AA, I was becoming part of the solution, and not part of the problem.
It says in 1 Peter 4:10 “As each one has received a gift, use it to serve one another as good stewards of God’s varied grace.” Like most things in life, it started with little things, like telling somebody I was praying for them. Something I would not have said to someone in the past.
From there, it progressed to things like being concerned with whether or not someone had sufficient food to eat or if they needed a ride somewhere. These little things slowly but surely change a person’s outlook on what makes life truly valuable.
But ultimately, this kind of change has to be centered on Christ and His life within me. As it says in Colossians 2:6-7 “So as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, walk in him, rooted in him and built upon him and established in the faith as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving.”
The seed grows
I began to really think about all that God had done for me, either directly or through others. I also thought about where I might be today without God’s grace and kindness. In my daily prayer life, I always thank God for how loving and kind He has been to me, for all the trouble I got out of and that which I never got into. And I always pray for those who have not been as fortunate, for there by the grace of God go I.
I started keeping a prayer journal and began to write down things I could do for God. I looked for ways in which I could repay Him for all of His love and kindness. Sponsoring a child in Bolivia with a monthly contribution was one way I could repay Him. Having masses said on a regular basis for souls that have passed away was another way to repay Him. And not a day goes by where I do not thank Jesus for all of the pain He suffered for the forgiveness of my sins.
In prayer, I got the feeling that God loves hearing the words, ‘thank you.’ I thought about how my walk through life with God has gone. From wondering where I stood with Him, to finally being at peace with Him, to growing in love for Him.
Where I am today
Today, I begin and end every day by simply telling God I love Him. Not one day of my life goes by without that thought being in my mind and heart. It has become the very reason I am happy to be alive and the reason that I wish to keep on living. Loving God has become my identity. It is who I am and who I desire to be.
As it says in Galatians 2:20 “Yet I live, no longer I, but Christ lives in me; insofar as I now live in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God who has loved me and given himself up for me.” Everything I do now, whether it’s helping someone in recovery, giving to support the church and its mission, or praying for others and helping them with their needs, is because I have grown to become a Christ-centered person.
God has become someone I seek to please as much as possible, as often as possible. Whether it’s through big things or in my own ‘little ways,’ as St. Theresa of Lisieux is known for, learning to give of myself has truly replaced the old me. Now Christ is in me.
As I think back to my father’s words that day in the car, I am reminded of an old song by Kenny Rogers entitled “The Gambler.” There is a line in that song that reminds me of my father and our time together: “In his final words, I found an ace that I could keep.”