“I used to pray that God would feed the hungry, or do this or that,
but now I pray that he will guide me to do whatever I’m supposed to do, what I can do.
I used to pray for answers, but now I’m praying for strength.
I used to believe that prayer changes things, but now I know that prayer changes us and we change things.”
– Mother Teresa
When I first met Ralph (who will be 84 next month) it was almost Christmas in what would be my first winter in Vermont. I was in my early 20’s, had a bruised ego and a broken heart. For the first time in my young life the desire to grab the world by the tail was lost and I found most of my time was spent feeling sorry for myself and re hashing regrets in my head. It didn’t take very long until I was driving my truck regularly up Walker Mountain to hang out with my new friend Ralph. At the very moment when I needed a grandpa the Lord put Ralph in my path and I can say with certainty that his influence changed the course of my life for the better. We spent hours on end together and almost always there was one unifying activity and it wasn’t talking. I very much consider him a counselor and cherish his advice, but he is incredibly stingy in that department. What he is generous with the most has always been his most prized commodity, his time. Never once has he ever told me he was too busy for me. Never once did I have to make an appointment to be with him. What we did do everytime we were together was work. Ralph never stopped his work but rather put a tool in my hand and coached me through whatever it was we were working on. When it was cold and snowing outside we would be ‘down cellar’ where the wood furnace took the chill off the grey Vermont air. While down cellar, he taught me to work with wood while I asked a million questions and soaked his wisdom up like a sponge. When spring time came we would cleaning up the mud and grime that came with the receding northeast winter. Pressure washing, window washing, pruning, fixing fences were all in a days work for a 73 year old man.
Come summer we would bail and fill his hay loft with 400 bales to carry his “beefers” through the winter months. While working together to fix lots of things that we could repair in a few hours work, he was fixing something much more important that required a longer investment, my heart. Almost every time I left him for the day he would stop, take his handkerchief out of his wool vest and wipe his nose like old men do, and insist on praying for me. His arthritic sun worn hands on my shoulders he would be brief almost knowing that if he kept praying I would start crying. Without exaggeration he must have told me 100 times, as we worked some thankless job for someone in the community, “whatever you do, do it unto the lord and not unto men”. The first 50 times I just nodded in a young man’s dismissive arrogant way thinking to my self “Oh Ok…..”. As the winter and spring dragged on and I saw him working for free to care for the elderly, the widowed, the misfit children and lost souls like me and it finally clicked on time 51. What Ralph was quoting and meant was that if I am relying on meeting the standards of another man’s judgement then I am setting my sights too low. That each shovel load of manure from his cold barn I should treat as the creator was watching and would be pleased with my efforts. Without ever telling me what made him tick, I watched as he and I worked at jobs that others would not do and he did them with joy and sacrifice. Never once did I see him receive payment or even much gratitude from helping neighbors or widows but he always willing to show up. How powerful is a man like Ralph, who with more action than instruction, models the good he wants to see in the world. His influence was never to teach me to be more like him, even though I very much am, but to be more Christ-like. This week he was in Texas to visit relatives near Austin. He and his wife of 60 years drove down to check out the farm. It didn’t take very long and we were working together again. It chokes me up a little thinking that each time we leave each other may be that much closer to the last time we see each other. Ralph doesn’t wait until he has money, time or energy to give of himself he just does it, and does so urgently. Miss you already old friend.