I Do Not Regret This Journey

The Rev. Evan Keely, Interim Minister

Johann Sebastian Bach, considered by many (including myself) to be Europe’s greatest composer, was also a devout Lutheran. He had a habit of scribbling the letters “SDG” at the end of compositions: soli Deo gloria, to God alone be the glory. It’s not difficult to imagine that the great scion of the Bach family did this to acknowledge God as the source of his inspiration and to give thanks to his Creator rather than congratulate himself on another masterpiece. I became aware of this custom of Bach’s when I was in my early twenties, and I couldn’t help but admire then (as I do now) the humility and devotion of this great genius who would offer his work to the Holy in this way. I developed my own practice of signing off with the letters “ITDS”: in te Domine speravi. When Jerome wrote his Latin translation of the Bible in the early fifth century, In te Domine speravi was his rendering of the opening words of Psalm 30 (which Protestants call Psalm 31, but that’s a whole other story): בְּךָ יְהוָה חָסִיתִי — the King James Bible translates this as, “In thee, O Lord, do I put my trust.” Jerome’s translation, In te Domine speravi, says something similar yet different. The Latin verb sperare can be understood to mean “to trust”, but it can also mean “to hope” or “to expect”. The inflection of Jerome’s translation of the Hebrew verb חָסָה with an emphasis on expectation and hope offers all of us something to think deeply about when we ponder the necessity of trust, and how it is an inherently hopeful and expectant thing to trust. A cab driver who ferried me to a ministers’ conference years ago posed a query that I have never stopped contemplating: what’s the difference between faith and hope? We know they’re not the same thing, but can we have one without the other? Can we trust unless we hope? Can we have faith without hope, and without trust? At the beginning of my adulthood, I made my personal motto In te Domine speravi: in thee, O Lord, I have hoped; in thee, O Everlasting One, is my expectation; in thee, O Eternal One, is my trust; in thee, O Holy One, is my faith. Who adopts a Latin motto as their personal creed? Surely a pretentious, pompous person. Well, here we are. In te Domine speravi has stood me in good stead through the years, and may it do so until the day comes when I close my eyes forever.

In the final days of March, 1912, Antarctic explorer Robert Falcon Scott and his two remaining companions sat freezing in their shelter, running out of food and fuel with no rescue or relief in sight. The team of five that he lead had hoped to be the first human beings to set foot upon the precise geographic spot of the South Pole; they had attained the pole two months earlier, only to find when they arrived that a Norwegian team had gotten there first a month earlier. As Scott’s party made their way back from the pole, two members of the team perished. Scott and the other two survivors managed to shelter themselves, but they spent their final days aware that there was no hope for their survival. Scott’s diary was found by a search party months later. One of his last entries ponders the meaning of the experience he shared with his doomed companions: “…I do not regret this journey… We took risks, we knew we took them; things have come out against us, and therefore we have no cause for complaint, but bow to the will of Providence, determined still to do our best to the last.”

A life lived without hope is no life at all; to live with only regrets is to die before the body dies. It’s hard to imagine that Captain Scott did not wonder in his final days what mistakes he had made, or how things could have been different if unforeseen events and bad luck had not crossed paths with his band of explorers. For him to face death with the words I do not regret this journey in his heart is perhaps extraordinary folly, and perhaps it is glorious. Maybe it’s both. Maybe anything worth striving for has to be both foolish and glorious. And if we strive for that which is worthy, we should not regret the journey, even if things turn out against us.

Certainly this is not to say we should never have regrets. Regrets can gnaw away at our souls, but it we are wise, regrets can be powerful teachers. We need a lot of humility and curiosity to learn from our regrets rather than simply allowing them to whittle away at the spirit. Above all we need hope: if we regret something but are willing to learn from it, we must dare to hope that we can learn from it. All humility is, in some sense, a thing of hope: when we humble ourselves, we are living in the hope that we can do better.

If we have taken risks, whether or not things turn out against us is ultimately not the question. Dumb luck plays a role in every success and every failure, and we often don’t even realize that sometimes our successes are actually failures, and sometimes our failures are ultimately the road to our success. I don’t think Scott can be faulted for thinking that things had turned out against him and his fellow adventurers. And I don’t think he can be faulted for not regretting the journey. He understood what the risks were, but perhaps he understood something even more important: why the risks were taken, what it was all for. The great teacher and martyr Norbert Čapek understood this: in his final days he wrote, “It is worthwhile to live and fight courageously for sacred ideals.” If we are taking risks on our journey, our first question must always be: are we fighting for sacred ideals? If we know in our conscience that the answer is yes, we should not regret the journey, even if folly is our companion along the way. There is glory in this too. But Johann Sebastian Bach understood in his heart to whom the glory should go, that it is not ours.

I do not have an intention of making any public statements about my own future, other than to say that I continue to live in hope. There is not much left for me to say about the future of this faithful people, other than to say what I have said all along: I am hopeful. Regarding this faith community, I dare to live in hope. I even dare, in rare moments of strength and courage, to live in hope for the future of humankind. In spite of everything, in spite of all the cowardice and stupidity and cruelty all around us and within us, I still think there are sacred ideals worth fighting for. I’m not giving up, and neither should you. What foolishness and what glory we have known! And we will know more of both in time to come. The foolishness will be ours, but the glory will be God’s alone.

I do not regret this journey; I do not regret this ministry. No doubt I have done very little good, but perhaps I have offered to an infinitesimally small number of the children of God the opportunity to consider what it means to live in hope, and to take risks for sacred ideals.

In te Domine speravi. The rest is silence.

Amen, and amen.