Ol' Blue Eyes sang, "When I was 17, it was a very good year "
It really was.
When I was 17, I had a steady girlfriend. We never fought. What do 17-year-olds have to fight about? I thought love was simple then. Love at 17 swells your heart. It was only later I learned that true love is much deeper than deciding which movie to watch (note to millennials: In those days you had to go to a theater to watch a movie). True love is about wanting something for someone more than you want something for yourself. Maybe you don't learn that lesson until you have committed to love someone for better or worse. Worse will come. That's when real love shows up.
When I was 17, I knew everything there was to know. I considered myself smarter than my parents, who didn't even know how to use a CB radio (CB radios were cellphones before cellphones). It is only now I realize how brilliant my parents were. They gave me room to make mistakes but not so much room that I would harm anyone. My Mom and Dad gave me a safety net I didn't even know was there. If I had five minutes with them again, I would tell them how much I appreciate them and how sorry I am for ever thinking they were dumb.
When I was 17, I already knew what it was to be world champion. Our high school band won championships in national and international competitions. When you are the best in the world at something, you get cocky. You think you are the best at everything. Except you're not. My illusions about being the greatest got popped my first week of college. I met people who were better than me at everything: They could sing, play the guitar and speak three languages all at the same time. A guy who became my best friend had his own business in high school and made about as much money as my father. Another friend had entered the same speech contest I had entered and won at the national level, while I capped out at the local level. I quickly learned the world was not impressed with yesterday's victories.
When I was 17, my parents gave me a 10-year-old Mercedes Benz. It wasn't as great as it sounds. It was a four-cylinder diesel that could climb slight inclines at an astonishing 20 miles per hour. It was not air-conditioned. I lived in Florida - can anyone see a problem there? When I took the car to Alabama to college, I found out Alabama had mountains, which my Mercedes climbed at 10 miles per hour. Alabama in the summer turned out to be just as hot as Florida, without a seabreeze. In the winter, the diesel would freeze and gum up the fuel filter and my car would have to sit in the parking lot until it could be towed in and worked on. It isn't cheap to work on a Mercedes. I learned the status of owning a Mercedes Benz was not as good as having a Chevrolet that actually runs and has air conditioning.
When I was 17, I had already preached my first sermons. In my tradition, you started young. I was the only licensed minister in my graduating class of 800. That made me oddly unique. I went to a Baptist college where I was one of 200 religion majors. One freshman was already on staff at a church as a youth minister. I had only preached when the pastor was out of town or needed a replacement he didn't have to pay. I learned there were a lot of people God planned to use. I could see them as rivals or teammates. I wish I could say I learned that people in ministry are teammates long ago, but the truth is, I still struggle. I have to remember that God has a role for me, not a spotlight for me to occupy.
When I was 17, I had God figured out. If I accepted Jesus as my savior, I would go to heaven. That was the core of my faith. It wasn't until much later I began to learn God did not want me just to go to heaven; God wanted a relationship with me. He wanted to love me and for me to love him. I've followed Jesus for a long time now, and I'm still working on loving God the way he deserves.
Solomon, the wisest man ever, said, "Remember your Creator in the days of your youth, for the chaotic days are coming." The most important thing for a 17-year-old to have is an anchor. The best place to anchor your life is in the harbor of God's love. No matter how old you are, that's sound advice.
Clay Smith is the lead pastor of Alice Drive Baptist Church in Sumter.
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