Photo by My Ticklefeet
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–every room in Bardland was booked.
So after the show, as the crowd ebbed away, I asked the eminently efficient theatre manager Ray if he had any suggestions. He gave me several numbers and I rang them all: “Sorry, no.” “Sorry, no.” “Sorry, no.”
“Come on, then,” said Ray as he locked the lobby. I didn’t know till later that “Come on, then” meant I’d be staying in his spare room — and not just any room, but a half-timbered room in a 400 year old Tudor house overlooking the Avon River! “Thank you, God,” I whispered. “All this history. I’m just sorry my purpose here has ended!”
Ray and I caught on like a thatched roof afire, talking until late and all the next day, and the day after that. We talked Shakespeare, of course, and history, and where to find the best fish and chips. But before long, God, the object of my deepest affections, came up.
Ray had never heard faith described in personal terms. He’d grown up in the Church of England and had rejected it, but over the last year had begun to reconsider “religion.” We were talking apples and oranges, my apples being a relationship with God, Ray’s 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, hey, we’ll do lunch together on the way there’? That’s not mercy. That’s sadism!”
“But it’s not fair!” Ray protested. “I have to be religious while the thief gets to do what he wants and go to Heaven anyway?”
“No!” I said. “I mean, yes, the thief was saved, but he missed out on a lifetime of knowing his Creator! When you know God, really know him, you want what he wants, and he changes you!”
“But, religion—” Ray protested.
“Forget ‘religion,’ Ray! God wants you! Let him love you!”
It turned out Ray had been studying “the law of the gospel” with Mormon elders, and had been squirming on that 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.)
“Look, why don’t you put ‘religion’ on hold for a while, Ray,” I gently urged, “and try God?”
After a long time, he whispered, “Maybe I will.”
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, both temporal and eternal. And even though I never saw Ray again, he has a permanent place in my heart. I’m looking forward to seeing him…