I’d just finished a month-long gig, teaching acting in London and Stratford-upon-Avon, Shakespeare’s birthplace, and had said goodbye to the last of my students. It had been a heady time, suffused with history.
I had tickets for The Merchant of Venice, which was wonderful, but didn’t have a place to stay, which was daunting, because every room in Bardland was booked.
After the show, as the crowd ebbed away, I asked the eminently efficient house manager if he had any suggestions. Rich gave me several numbers.
Ring-ring. “Full up.”
Ring-ring. “Just booked the last.”
“Come on, then,” Rich said as he locked the lobby. I didn’t know till later that “Come on, then” meant I’d be living in Rich’s spare room for the next three days. And not just any room, but the half-timbered room of a 400 year old Tudor house overlooking the Avon. “Thank you, God,” I whispered. “All this history. I’m sorry it’s over!”
It wasn’t. Rich and I were about to make new history. Eternal history.
We caught like a thatched roof on fire, talking until late and all the next day. We talked Shakespeare, of course, and where to find the best fish and chips. But before long, God, the Object of my affections, came up (love does that).
Rich had never heard faith described in intimate terms. He’d grown up in the C of E (Church of England) and had rejected it, but over the last year he’d begun to reconsider “religion.” We were talking apples and oranges here, my apples being a relationship with God, his oranges being strict adherence to rituals and ordinances in order to secure a berth in Heaven.
“But what about the thief on the cross?” I asked. “He didn’t have time to make up for what he’d done wrong. He threw himself on Jesus’s mercy. And Jesus said, ‘Today you’ll be with me in Paradise.’” (Luke 23:43)
“Jesus didn’t say ‘Heaven,’” Ray averred, “He said, ‘Paradise.’ The thief wasn’t saved.”
“Wait–you mean Jesus was telling him, ‘You’re going to spend eternity in Hell, but we’ll do lunch together on the way there’? That’s not mercy. That’s sadism!”
“But it’s not fair!” Rich protested. “You’re saying I have to be religious while the thief gets to do what he wants and go to Heaven anyway?”
“No!” I said. “The thief was saved, but he missed out on a lifetime of knowing his Creator! When you know Him, really know him, you want what He wants. He changes you!”
“But, religion—“ Rich protested.
“Forget ‘religion,’ Rich! God wants more. He wants you! Let Him love you!”
It turned out Rich had been studying “the law of the gospel” with Mormon elders, and had been squirming on their cross for a year! (I know and love a lot of Mormons, some of whom are family members, but I do not love their religion.)
“Why don’t you put ‘religion’ on hold for a while, Rich,” I gently urged, “and try God?”
“Maybe I will,” he whispered.
We said goodbye the next day. I gave him my dog-eared Bible, full of personal notes about my spiritual journey.” We hugged. And cried. A lot.
My time in Stratford was infused with history. Past and future. Even though I never saw him again, Rich has a permanent place in my heart. I’m looking forward to seeing him…