We give and take advice on a daily basis. Yet seldom do you give advice to someone 200 years in advance.
But when James Burns in Ireland wrote to his son James in America in 1796, I felt he was speaking to me today.
He wrote: “Dear Son, Think that this world is not your home, but that one day you must enter another where you must abide forever.”
I recast my ancestor’s advice into more tangible terms, picturing myself standing in front of two houses. I would live in the one house for five years and then the second one for 10 thousand years. I have a tool box in hand and must decide which house should receive the most attention.
“The second house,” you’d say, “since you’ll be there so much longer.” Like forever? “Yes, the father is referring to eternity, to eternal life.”
But I was still ill at ease with my analogy. The five years in the first house was immediate, a virtual certainty, whereas occupancy of the second house was tinged with all sorts of uncertainty. Would I be wearing white robes with wings? Would I even get there?
My casual reading of our old family letters had become a deeper dive into theology, prophecy, and reality than intended. My two-house analogy was too simple. Thus the first house might be seen as within the second
I was taken back to my analogy, standing in front of two houses, one here and one holy, both needing work and with the father’s advice to his son still ringing in my ears. “Think that this world is not your home, but that one day you must enter another where you must abide forever.”
I am not very handy with tools, virtually helpless, a fact to which my wife will willingly attest. So if someone asks me what I’m planning to do today, I might reply, “Well, I think I’ll be working on my house.” This is the house that needs the most work, the one where I hope to be for a long, long time.
I grew up in a time when faith, family, and freedom were the pillars of our nation and our culture. Times have changed.
Oh, we had our crime, wars, and bad behavior, but still there was a national sense of being centered on love of country and the Golden Rule, do unto others as you would have them do unto you, and a certain wholesomeness that Billy Graham and prominent priests and rabbis represented.
Having watched Ken Burns’ recent history of country music, I have something else ringing in my ears.
“Give me that old-time religion, give me that old-time religion, it’s good enough for me.”
James F. Burns is a retired professor at the University of Florida. He was born in Cincinnati and grew up near Coney Island. His cousins, the Varneys, had a farm just outside Wilmington where the family reunions were held.