Further Adventures of a Boy and His Kayak

Paddling my kayak along the frigid Potomac River just before New Year’s, I turned reflective. This quiet time on the water is perhaps my best place to find the detachment I need for real focus. It’s rare. At year’s end, I wondered about why I do something this challenging at 75: what’s this all about? Perhaps it has to do with something lost I’m trying to recover. Some would likely hold with Friedrich Nietzsche that “In every real man a child is hidden that wants to play.”  Maybe this is my nascent form of the recovery of boyhood, my playtime. But it seems to me somewhat less the boy I seek than the young man, full of the strength of his arms and legs, glorying in seemingly endless energy. Future decline then seemed nothing more than a passing zephyr. Yet shoulder pains interrupted this explanation and begged to differ. No, I believe it’s something less obvious that draws me out there.

Recently, I was rereading Cicero’s essay on old age (De Senectute) where he envisions a discussion between Cato and some young men who come to inquire about what it’s like to be old in years. The response was a good one I hadn’t considered: “I do not now desire the bodily strength of youth, any more than when I was a young man I desired the strength of a bull or an elephant. It is becoming to make use of what one has, and whatever you do, to do in proportion to your strength.” As he goes on, Cato explains that we have the bodies that were designed for the tasks appropriate to them. As a Stoic, of course, he ascribes this to the nature of things and that old age is a time for thought, for reflection, for writing of what one has observed over the years and youthful vigor would only detract from that task.

Yet, I think there is a deeper truth—God never intended that we grow old to begin with. His original design was that we be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth with civilizations and cultures that would extend his Kingdom from the Garden of Eden to the ends of the earth and have the bodily vigor to do so, to walk with him always. But sin changed all that as creation was broken; everything was broken. While in the redemption of creation which Christ brought began to make all things bad turn back toward good, the bodies we were originally to incarnate will only be realized in the resurrection. Still, I think Cicero is onto something. As God restores his Kingdom purposes slowly but surely, I believe he has taken our bodily decline into account and has given us unique tasks as we finish this earthly life appropriate only to those of many years and of many tears. Elders who have the aches and failures and disappointments of a long life under the sun also have gradually learned better the goodness of God through it all and the importance of relying upon him entirely. That only comes with time or it has with me anyway. This understanding can only, more fully at least, arrive with the passage of time that erodes the hubris of youth, replacing it with wisdom. Godly wisdom but hopefully humility more so for all the grace received. That is a later in life gift.

Like all gifts we are told not to hoard but to share them. The great, yawning gap of loneliness that has descended upon the West owes much to the growing disconnection between the old and the young as our digitally connected lives actually disconnect us from our designed humanity. We thought to quench the created desires within by the promise of technology and a consumer culture to meet all our needs but have arrived at a place where amusing ourselves to death is our destination.

As always, I turn to C.S. Lewis who saw all this longing for connection as particularizing our age as he writes in The Problem of Pain:  

You have never had it. All the thing that has ever deeply possessed your soul have been but hints of it – tantalizing glimpses, promises never quite fulfilled, echoes that died away just as they caught your ear. But if it should ever really become manifest – if there ever came an echo that did not die away but swelled into the sound itself - you would know it. Beyond all possibility of doubt you would say, ‘Here at last is the thing I was made for.’

We cannot tell each other about it. It is the secret signature of each soul, the incommunicable and unappeasable want, the thing we desired before we met our wives or made our friends or chose our work, and which we shall still desire on our deathbeds, when the mind no longer knows wife or friend or work. While we are, this is. If we lose this, we lose all.

“It,” and the “thing we were made for” are of course the restoration of our connection to the God who made us to join the Father-Son-Holy Spirit dance of eternity made possible only by his coming for us in the flesh and then in the Spirit. The wisdom of an older generation bears witness to this discovery after their many other searches have proven fruitless and failures accumulate. In our years of declining bodies, we are by God’s grace more apt to be focused on others coming behind than our own rising stars. We are better prepared to reconnect the links to them and to help connect them to God, to love him and fulfill the unquenchable desire that lies within each of us made in his image. That is our end-of-life calling.

If we take more time to “paddle” quietly and reflect over our blessed lives, chances are we will see all this more clearly then come back to shore and get on with it, persisting to the end. We have more work to do, good work long designed for older bodies with younger souls.

For Men: A Matter of the Heart

The hardest course I ever took in college had to be Astronautical Engineering: the study of the way physics operates in three-dimensional space. The complexity of the mathematics was manageable, but I found my understanding of the dynamics of the variety of forces of bodies in space to be extremely difficult if not impossible to envision. I think a C was all I managed. Yet, there was one idea I took away that became be a life lesson, that of trajectory. A few years later, when I played babysitter to 50 Minuteman missiles aimed at precise points on a map thousands of miles away, I often thought about this. The smallest alteration in angle, thrust, or weight at the outset of launch had the potential to change the landing point by several yards, even miles. Small differences in the beginning can profoundly impact the ending. That’s a matter of the heart.  

I was thinking about this again recently when reading the story of King David and how he was identified as the king while still a teenager—the king from whom the line of the King of Kings would emerge. God’s first pick for the throne, Saul, had failed and the old prophet Samuel was dispatched to tell him this saying, “Your kingdom shall not continue. The LORD has sought out a man after his own heart, and the LORD has commanded him to be prince over his people, because you have not kept what the LORD commanded you.”[1] God came looking for a man after His own heart and who did He find but a boy, the youngest son of Jesse, a shepherd, not a warrior or a scholar but a mere boy, whose leadership training so far had been watching out over sheep. Even Samuel was fooled when he interviewed Jesse’s sons and thought the older, taller ones had to be God’s pick. When finally David was summoned from the mountains, he did not fit Samuel’s job description for a leader. Yet, God confirms that this is the one He has picked: “The LORD sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart.”[2] What God saw in David was not simply a feckless teen but a young man whose life was on a trajectory to become a man after God’s own heart. But immediately this raises two questions: (1 what shaped David in those early years such that God saw he would become the one he was looking for when he became a man in full? then, (2 knowing the full story of David’s life as God must surely have beforehand, how could this future moral failure and murderer be called someone after His own heart?

               For now let’s examine the first answer. We’ll take up the second later. If we begin with the end, where the trajectory of David’s life took him, this is how David was seen in scripture when he was about to speak his last: “Now these are the last words of David. David the son of Jesse declares, the man who was raised on high declares, the anointed of the God of Jacob, and the sweet psalmist of Israel.”[3] To paraphrase, his legacy was as the king, selected personally by God, who from his youth onward became known as the sweet singer of Israel. How David impacts most of us today stems less from his legacy as a king but more as an artist, the composer of the songs that have remained “hits” for three thousand years. This musician gives voice to every possible emotion of all of us who live complex lives before the eyes of God.

Jewish tradition has David portrayed as a musicologist who designed and played lyres or harps. Much like the modern guitar, the lyre was played with a pick and could be used to calm the soul as David did with Saul, or to sing the spirited folk tunes of Israel, or to praise, thank, and appeal to God in sung prayer. Of the 150 Psalms, half were written by David. Most of us by the time we reach the latter years have some of these psalms carved in us, words that are now touchstones to recall for our life’s most joyous and besieged moments.

Where David began this mastery of the lyre and began composing tunes most certainly was as a boy in the wilderness guarding the sheep. It is also there that he learned the courage that emerged as the slingshot warrior who faced down Goliath, then led Saul’s armies, and later forged his own to victories over Israel’s pagan enemies. What God saw in the earliest stages of this young man’s life trajectory was the orientation of his heart such that he could see the ending of the story, the full plant in the seed. He saw that David possessed two seemingly contradictory yet complementary bents in his life.

The first was courage, literally embodying the Latin for heart, cor, the seat of emotional, intellectual, and spiritual/moral discernment and activity which led him to stare down fear in order to do what was right when his sheep were threatened or later, his people. Here, our picture might be of someone who is tough as nails, a Navy Seal or a rodeo bullrider.

In stark contrast, the second image suggests a young man who is sensitive, who loves the beauty of music and poetry, who sings to himself or to the surrounding trees and hills and who has a tender heart for the things of God's creation. The modern picture that emerges is at best one of a mild fellow, the guy who prefers soft jazz to rap, ballads to raucous rock, John Denver not JayZ.

Tough and tender.

To me, even at three quarters of a century of life, there is something thrilling, challenging, aspirational even to still seek to be a man after God’s own heart, and I persist in that with hope, but I’m also nearing the end. To younger men, I see clues in David’s life, clues God has embedded there for us to discern at the beginning of the trajectory of life, heart lessons in becoming a man. I don’t have all the answers, but a couple of thoughts are suggestive I’d share.

Make sure your picture of the man you want to become is the one God has of a real man after his own heart, that of His own Son, the descendant of David, who was the only one who fulfilled that vision to perfection. Seek to be like Christ as Paul says in Philippians 2:1-11. Here we see Jesus as that perfect combination of tender and tough. On the one hand he was humble, not driven by ego or ambition, willing to serve others though he had amazing power. On the other hand, he faced down the scariest enemy we know—death, death by torture and public shame as well as ultimate abandonment. We are not simply to emulate him, but to allow him into the heart of our life so that we can become more and more like him. We do this not by gritting our teeth but surrendering, receiving the gift of His new life.

Then we build the man on that foundation as David says in the great Psalm 119,[4] by answering the question: “How can a young man keep his way pure?” The inspired answer David gives us is this: “By guarding it according to your word. With my whole heart I seek you; let me not wander from your commandments! I have stored up your word in my heart that I might not sin against you.” This was not simply an obligatory nod David gave to God’s word, but likely a heart lesson he’s passing on to us that began in his younger years with the sheep and a lyre—that if we are really seeking after Him with our whole hearts, to be reshaped into Christlikeness, then we must learn to obey out of love by enshrining God’s word in the deepest places it can reside—in our hearts and minds. We get the sense this, too, was what God saw in the young David, a man of thoughtful reflection on scripture that informed his musical compositions. It’s a good place to start. We’ll take up David’s failure (and ours) next. Any thoughts or suggestions, please share them for the good of the order. God’s grace and peace.

Heartwork (not homework): Try taking Philippians 2:1-11 and do some heart inventory, then commit some of it, or all, to memory so you can reflect when you’re alone walking in the woods or listening to some good, heartening music.

 

 

[1] 1 Samuel 13:14, ESV

[2] 1 Samuel 16:7, ESV

[3] 2 Samuel 23:1 NAS

[4] Psalm 119:9-11, ESV

Paths

Leo Tolstoy tells the story of Efim and Elisha, friends of years and friends of tears, who were nearing the end of their lives. Long ago they had made a pact to accomplish one last task on their bucket list before they died. And, as old men often do, their thoughts had turned toward spiritual matters. In their day, a pilgrimage to Jerusalem was the capstone for many devout Russians. So it was they said good-by to their families and gathered their things to set out on the long road ahead. But, as all stories and life journeys do, this one soon presented them with a crisis.

After several days they came upon a small hut where it appeared no one lived; it looked at first glance to have been abandoned recently. But upon closer observation they found that plague and starvation had invaded the tiny homestead and that a father, mother, and two children along with an old grandmother lay near death. Efim was reluctant to stop because it seemed obvious they would die anyway, but Elisha decided to tarry to do what he could for them and said he would catch up later. That proved to be a life-changing decision, the place where the story and the two men’s last journey diverged.

Over the next days, Elisha succeeded in helping the family to slowly recover, first with bread from his own provisions, then he purchased more in the village when his supply ran out. Each day he drew them water from the well until their strength returned.  But when it came time to leave and catch up with Efim the little ones clung to his legs and cried pitifully that they had no horse to work the field and no cow for milk. Having empathy for them one thing led to another and by the time they were restored, Elisha had expended almost all of his life savings.

This time as he prepared to leave, Elisha realized his pilgrimage was no longer feasible. Almost out of money and having lost so much time, he could only regretfully turn back toward home, his spiritual quest ended. But as he walked away, the little family came out to bless him as he set out—in the opposite direction.   

Meanwhile, Efim went on and though often looking back for his friend he completed his pilgrimage to Jerusalem. The highlight of the trip was worshipping at the midnight mass at the Sepulcher of Christ in the Church of the Resurrection. But here was where the oddest thing happened. In the midst of a large, pressing crowd, anxious to get close to the front where Jesus had lain, he was stunned to see the back and the distinctive bald head of his friend, Elisha, arms outstretched like a priest at the altar before the sepulcher. But by the time he wove his way forward, Elisha had disappeared into the crowd—or so it seemed. Though he looked everywhere, he never found him among the pilgrims.

Still perplexed by what he had seen, yet another surprise awaited Efim on his journey back home.  As he reached the village where he and Elisha had parted a year earlier, he was stopped by a friendly family who asked him to come aside and share their food and a bed for the night. That evening they told him the story of the stranger who rescued their lives. They recounted that not only were they in good health through his care, but each recounted an even more important result:

Had he not come we should all have died in our sins. We were dying in despair, murmuring against God and man. But he set us on our feet again; and through him we learned to know God and to believe that there is good in man, May the Lord bless him! We used to live like animals, he made human beings of us (emphasis added). [1]

It was then Efim saw that while realizing the long awaited goal of the pilgrimage to Christ’s grave, it was Elisha whose offering of himself in serving those in need that had been accepted by God. At the end, Tolstoy leaves the reader to ponder with Efim what God’s purpose is for man at the end of his life. For Tolstoy the answer is clear as he recounts through Efim: “He now understood that the best way to keep one’s vows to God and to do His will, is for each man while he lives to show love and do good to others.”[2]

 To finish the race with others being the better for having encountered us, whether it is a great thing we do or not, that is the question to consider as we set out on the path that leads toward the end of the journey. We leave our legacies not on monuments but in the lives of others. That is all that will last.

[1] Leo Tolstoy, translated by Louise and Aylmer Maude, Two Old Men, (McLean, VA: The Trinity Forum, 2002), 31.

[2] Ibid, 33.

The Last Lap: Finding Contentment in Finishing the Race

Not too long after joining our vibrant and decidedly young church plant, our 30-something pastor invited the congregation to look around at the “elderly” people in their midst. With a mixture of laughter and some embarrassment, necks began craning. A bit chagrined, those few of us with gray or little hair joined in the laughter. He said that we were great sources of wisdom and mentoring for those coming behind. Later, my wife light-heartedly advised our pastor that if he ever used the term “elderly” to describe her in the future, she was out of there. Embracing our aging is an uneasy alliance. A short book has helped me a great deal to get my arms around being an elder. I recommend it. 

J.I. Packer in Finishing Our Course with Joy, the latest of his many marvelous writings, begins the book in his usual forthright manner: “We grow old.” While Packer falls into the self-described “oldest old” category—those above 85—his audience is those 65 and older. In this short book, after cataloging the physical and mental consequences of aging, he presents the heart of his message: to debunk the assumptions of the culture and the church that the elderly are only recipients, not practitioners of service to others.

Beginning with Psalm 92’s emphasis on fruitfulness in old age, Packer’s thesis is: “[S]o far as our bodily health allows, we should aim to be found running the last lap of the race of our Christian life, as we would say, flat out. The final sprint, so I urge, should be a sprint indeed.” He recognizes that this contrasts sharply with what many Americans assume is the normal and mature thing to do—slow down, relax, enjoy your life, you’ve earned a rest. His insight is that there is a specific temptation that lurks amidst the elder years and the church does little to help resist it by relieving the “Q-tips” from any serious responsibilities. In fact, most churches cater to the elderly with small trips and social events, helping them slip into a slower life of leisure, travel, and crosswords until they are called home. This is “one of the huge follies of our time” he says forthrightly, a belief which deserves to be debunked as unbiblical, narcissistic, and a squandering of all that God has built into one’s life for such a time as this. I agree.  

Other than the humility borne of accepting bodily limits and loss of societal status Packer discusses the vocation or calling for the final phase of life. As my wife and I both grapple with this question in our latter years, the third chapter on “Keeping Going” was the most valuable to us. Anyone older than or approaching 65 needs to consider thinking about and planning for what Packer outlines here as our work ahead. He sees God using this final phase as the time where he hones and buffs us into Christ’s likeness before calling us home.

As such, he says, we first need to overcome the age-specific allure of using retirement as a warrant to make self-indulgence our priority, a time where we call our own shots, do what we desire, since we no longer have to commute, wear a tie, or answer to a boss. Yet, quoting Billy Graham, he affirms with him that the word “retire” is not in the Bible. The great heroes of the faith finish the race well, bursting the tape as I was taught when beginning to run the quarter mile, not simply jogging the last steps as fatigue grabs legs and lungs.

In personal terms, this winding down may seem natural enough. Not only has the world pensioned us elders off, we are starting to feel that our bodies are running out of steam, so that reducing the demands we make on ourselves can even seem like appropriate self-care. By moving to think this way, however, we undermine, diminish, and deflate the role we have been prepared for in this last lap, reducing us from laborers in Christ’s kingdom to sympathetic spectators; more passengers whom society or the congregation carries by means of their exertions.

And here is where the tension lies for my wife and I as a couple and for many of our peers. If we have the health, and if we have the means, should we not enjoy what we couldn’t in our more constrained youth? After a life of work don’t we owe it to ourselves to take a nap or a long lunch or travel, to enjoy what I’ve come to call “adult day camp.”

Packer says no—that this freedom provides us the opportunity for serious catechetical (not simply devotional) Bible study and intergenerational leadership through influencing younger persons’ lives with wisdom and caring as older mentors. Keep learning and teach others. 

But more than accomplishing these tasks, Packer is urging upon those of us who are finishing the race to run it with zeal. An uncommon word, zeal is how he sums up the attitude he encourages among his generation. In fact, zeal is a word God uses to describe himself and the approach that led Jesus to the cross—zeal for the Kingdom. This is not to the point of burnout or exhaustion but the implication is that, particularly in old age, vigorous work and faithful commitments are acts of faith fueled by our ultimate hope in the One who gives us zeal, God himself.

As I was finishing this little gem of a book, I was reminded of a sunny and warm kayak ride I had taken a few weeks earlier in Florida. Setting out from the dock, I paddled by one large boat after another, all lined up in front of beautiful condos sitting along the channels leading out into the bay. I began to notice that many of these boats had names that spoke of a hope for the good life: Dad’s Dream; Finally; No Egrets; and Last Office. The one that especially caught my eye was a particularly large boat emblazoned with the name Contentment. As I looked up at this massive craft, I found myself wondering, “Is this guy really content now?” Not only was it a cash-eating cow, but there it sat, gathering barnacles and the deterioration that accompanies any idle boat--or life for that matter.

I think Packer has it right. As hard as it may be, even in old age we are called, prepared for, and needed by those who come after us.  Thus we persist, we run. Indeed, we are to run and keep running until we hear Christ say “well done.” In that we can be content.

This article first appeared on the Washongton Institute for Faith and Vocation website, March 2014. http://www.washingtoninst.org/7665/the-last-lap-vocation-for-the-elderly/

 

An Elder at the Gate

In ancient times, the city gate was where people often met to gather the latest news, for wise counsel, and even for judicial decisions. Those who were no longer able to go off to the fields, to their shops or to the marketplace to work, spent much of their time sitting at the gates of the city. They took their places as other generations of elders before them had--to serve their purpose at the end of life sharing what life's experiences had taught them. Without city gates, perhaps we have lost something, for where do we go for wisdom now? Google it? Facebook friends? I’m afraid we do. It was not always so.  We live in an age where the generations have perhaps never been so disconnected from the God-given spiritual DNA of the need for human connection, old to young--young to old. Now in my seventies, I am encouraging myself and my generation to understand how and why to take their places at the gates of our day. It is my contention we have no idea how much we are needed. For the sake of the up and coming iGen and Millennials, as well as for the Kingdom of God, I am encouraging those who are elder to find someone who is younger; for those who are younger find someone with grey hair, or perhaps none. Then, the two of you go for a walk, sit on a park bench, or maybe grab a cup of coffee. Get started. My guess is you'll find a ready ear--on both parts. That's because it's the way it's supposed to be. 

What is it like to be old?

The question surprised me. Given the circumstances, it really surprised me. I was standing, naked, about to take a shower or, more precisely, I was standing with a guy who was himself dressed and about to give me the first assisted shower of my life. A week before I had been doing something I’ve done for forty years at least, I was out riding my bike for exercise and for the joy of being in the sun on a nice day, feeling the wind on my body and the strength of my legs. I remember distinctly I was accelerating down a slight hill at the last second deciding to turn onto a side street. Then I woke up in an ambulance with someone fastening a collar firmly around my neck. What happened in between I was only able to partially reconstruct later. But the consequences were clear: seven broken ribs, a concussion, and a partially punctured lung.

What followed after the ER diagnosis was four days in the hospital then six days at a nursing home/rehabilitation center where my buddy shower was about to ensue. The young man was African, from Ghana he said, in the U.S. for only six months. So when he asked out of the blue, “What is it like to be old?” I found myself at a loss for an answer. I think I tried some lame humor about how you heal a lot slower, but that was not his point. He said that where he came from those who were old were given great respect, but he found here that young people did not listen to those who were older and definitely did not respect their wisdom. That took me aback. I tried to answer him as best I could however. He really wanted to know.

First, I told him, I don’t think I had ever given much thought to what it was like to be old and maybe I should have. It just was what it was as we often say here. But second, I’ve not experienced disrespect, at least not very often and that mostly when driving in impatient Washington DC. From teaching high school the last eight years and from our mentoring of young couples before marriage, our experience has been nothing but positive with the next generations. Still, it made me wonder, is it possible that many elders disengage from their place to take up residence in 55 and over communities or head for warmer climates to be with others like themselves because they feel their contribution has ended? I also wonder if we give the question enough thought before we're old. I know I haven't. I have had the vague goal of "finishing well," but honestly I never was able to quite put legs on that. We seem to put a lot of our energy in America into staying as young and healthy as possible, and most of that is to the good, but perhaps the philosophy of "You're only as old as you think" needs some challenging.

So, if you're game, how do you think about what it is like to be old or what you might think about before you enter that territory. I am planning on giving this some thought myself in the weeks ahead.