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A post-homiletical discourse delivered by the Rev. Dr. James R. Beebe
Rector, St. Patrick’s Church, Incline Village, Nevada, January 1, 2012
I can’t believe that I’ll be turning 63 this year. Three score and three. The Big Six Three. I don’t feel like it. The person lurking about inside me is more like…about…say…30. This is one of the great truths I’ve realized in the past decade. When I interact with people in their 70’s and 80’s, the person I’m really interacting with is more like…about…say…30. At least that’s how they think of themselves.
Getting older is a mixed bag. On the down side, there are wrinkles and aches and pains and increasing numbers of people lost to us. On the upside, though, there is the accumulation of wisdom (if you don’t want merely to groove a bad swing). Dave Barry has just turned 63, too. He tells us the great lessons of his life:
* If a politician ever ran for president under the slogan, “Harlan Frubert: Basically He Just Wants Attention,” I would quit my job to work for his campaign.
* Or, when trouble arises and things look bad, there is always one individual who perceives a solution and is willing to take command. Very often, that individual is crazy.
Gray is our word for today because of two marginal characters who are mentioned in the birth narrative in Luke: Simeon and Anna. Luke describes Simeon as righteous and devout and had, apparently, been waiting for The One all his life. Tradition has it that this old man picked up the baby Jesus and praised God, saying:
“Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.”
That’s the famous “Nunc Dimittus,” often chanted in Evensong services. It’s all very nice and bed-timey, but it leaves out the-rest-of-the-story. Simeon finishes up by saying – no doubt to Mary’s consternation – “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed – and a sword will pierce your own soul, too.” Maybe not so bed-timey, that.
Then, in our same reading from Luke we find the marginal character called Anna. She’s the daughter of Phanuel, presumably a big shot who helped support her financially after her husband of only seven years died. She’s now 84. She regularly hung out at the temple and spoke often about the child called Jesus to those who would listen.
Simeon and Anna provide the transition in the story line to the long-awaited savior. They also provide the opportunity to say some things about aging. Will Willimon, who used to be the Dean of the Chapel at Duke University, recalled a student whom he was teaching in seminary. The student was serving his first little church. One day he complained about his congregation: “The median age of my congregation is over sixty,” he said. “And you know how old people are.”
“No, how ARE they?” Willimon asked.
“You know, set in their ways, creatures of habit, slow to change, stuck in their ruts. They don’t want any innovation or change in the way we do things at the church.”
Now, that’s an interesting thing to say, given the fact that of the six or eight greatest changes you must make in life, four or five of the most traumatic ones will occur after the age of 65. Huge changes – like declining health, loss of independence, unemployment, the loss of a partner.
So Willimon turned to the student pastor and said, “Which suggests that it’s not fair to say that these older people are refusing to change. They are about to drown in some of the most dramatic changes life offers. When you’ve buried the man you have lived with for fifty years, or you are forced out of your life’s work, about the last thing you need is to come to church and have some upstart young preacher say, ‘Let’s do something new and innovative today.’ They are SINKING in a flood of innovation!”
Younger people generally have no clue as to how difficult it is to grow older. Nor do they value the courage it takes to, literally, start over at each transition. Reynolds Price has written a book called, A Whole New Life. It’s the account of his struggle through spinal cancer.
He tells how he denied his disease. How he was filled with anger and resentment when he realized how sick he was. How he was once a robust, active man, at the prime of his life, reduced to life in a wheelchair.
His path back up that mountain of despair began with the simple realization that the old Reynolds had died. He couldn’t get those lost aspects of his life back. Now, he could spend the rest of his life in grief for what he had lost, pitifully attempting to salvage some bits and pieces, or he could begin a whole new life. He opted for the latter. He started over.
It wasn’t the life he would have chosen, but it was a good life, a life worth living. And now he enjoys the greatest period of artistic productivity of his life, turning out more novels, plays and poems than ever. “Find a way to be somebody else,” he advises. “The next viable you. A stripped-down whole other clear-eyed person. Realistic as a sawed-off shotgun and thankful for air.”
Transitions. How older Christians make them is important. And retirement is no exception. [Willimon] One woman’s mother had worked at minimum wage in a garment factory for over 40 years. When she retired, her children thought she’d be thrilled. She wasn’t. She was miserable. She cried. She hung around at the gate of the factory many mornings, vainly hoping that they would call her back to work.
We can’t have our old life back. What we need is to lay hold of a whole new life. We need some good rituals for retirement. In Japan, for instance, there’s a tradition in which, when a woman reaches retirement age, she takes all of her pots and pans and presents them to her daughter. From then on, she is expected not to enter the kitchen. That part of her life is over. A new life has begun.
I remember hearing a story abut a newly-retired Methodist pastor from South Carolina. The first week after his retirement, he and his wife of 48 years decided to pack up and move up to Maine for the summer. Somewhere up the Eastern seaboard, they took a wrong turn and, instead of bypassing New York City, they ended up driving down Broadway, right in the middle of Manhattan. Being from a rural town down South, the pastor was confused by the number of people, the multitude of signs, and the sheer enormity of the place.
As he haltingly drove down Broadway, drivers honked at his slow pace. One, a cab driver, rolled down his window and crudely suggested that he be fruitful and multiply. He forlornly thought to himself, “Here I am, having given the better part of my adult life to the service and glory of God, loved and respected by my parishioners. But here! Here nobody knows that I’m a pastor. In fact, nobody knows me at all!”
At which point he rolled down his window, looked the cab driver I the eye, and said, “And you, sir, can [take a long walk off a short pier].”