Aging: Old First E-pistle 08.06.15

Tuesday night I went to NYC with colleagues, Bishop Dwayne Royster and Rev. Greg Holston. Our assignment: to speak to POWER’s sister organization, Faith in New York, about the importance of organizing within the congregation.

This is an aside to my main E-pistle topic this week, but my take is: God help us if we believe, a local church’s ministry or organizing is limited to what the pastor can juggle. So much more gets done when church teaches effectively that everyone in the congregation is both minister and organizer… and consequently makes its mission treating, training, supporting and holding us accountable as such.

Anyway, what I want to share happened after the meeting. I waited with the Bishop and the pastor as they got into a cab back to Penn Station. Then, on my own, on foot, I headed over to the A train.

First, walking along a greatly gentrified and much more racially diverse 125th St., I remembered pushing Ben in a stroller (Simon wasn’t born yet) from the west side to the east looking for a Christmas tree stand our first year in New York City. Just before the Metro. North tracks on Park Avenue, a grandmotherly African American woman stopped me; she asked if I was lost. When I explained, she said, “Honey, take the baby, and go back home.” A few years later, East Harlem was home, but that’s another story.

A few minutes later, still last Tuesday night, as I scurried down the subway stairs to catch the express downtown, on my way to Brooklyn, it occurred to me further: it was almost 30 years ago to the day that I first entered that subway station. All the different times / various situations in which I have entered or exited or rode through that station flooded back to me.

It is amazing how places can suddenly do that to you. It was like my own incarnation of that final scene from “Our Town,” (except I wasn’t yet dead!), Emily Webb’s belated insight: “It goes so fast. We don’t have time to look at one another… Do human beings every realize life while they live it?”

As the train snaked slowly under the city, there was set off within me a slow motion reflection on aging — a little sad, but also inviting.

On one hand it feels like only yesterday. On the other, it’s been a lot of years — and changes– and I feel like a very different person. Or like I’ve been a couple of different people.

I feel “sort of a way” about getting older! As the hymn goes: “in the middle ages of your life; not too old; no longer young.”

Am I for some reason more aware of aging? Maybe because I had children early, so my ‘peers as parents’ tend to be a chunk older? Or are ministers more prone to thinking about mortality? The pastor emeritus at the first church I served, his counsel — or warning — to me as a new, young pastor: “You’ll see a lot more death than most people.” Do I wish I wasn’t noticing?

These days, I often think to myself: “if like a cat, I have nine lives, I’ve surely used up 2 if not 3 of my chances already!” By my age, are most people noticing a similar lurking awareness of the passing of the years? Perhaps we are, but there’s just not much space to discuss or even share the experience with others?

Aging, like death, is one of those aspects of life that you better get right the first time; there aren’t any dry runs. No second chances. Not much opportunity to prep for it either. One finds oneself in it. One just better to try and figure out how to do it well. (I guess that’s life itself.)

If I’m startled by all this now, what’s it going to feel like — if I make it that far — in, say, 20 years?

One of my favorite questions to ask when people are telling me about some curious passage in their life is “Where do you find Jesus in all this?” I’ll admit, it’s often a dodge, a reflective question when I’m not sure how else to respond. But I think it is a good question… for tying our daily experience to our faith and how it informs our lives.

In our day of increasing longevities, we think that Jesus died a young man. But in his day, life expectancies were so much shorter. Did Jesus have some experience of aging? Could it have been such an experience or realization that sent him off from whatever his earlier life had been into the itinerant ministry of his last years?

Should our experience of aging change the ways we look at our lives? How we live them? What we understand their purpose to be?

When Jesus preached about the ‘Kingdom of Heaven’ — that which is still coming but is also already here — was this his way of calling us, like Emily Webb, to appreciate the sacredness of our days and our daily living? Did he mean for us to instill in our every moment (at least as early as possible… someone told me once there’s no sense of mortality before one’s 30’s?) the need to savor it as unrepeatable?

The Bible, elsewhere, is clear enough, our days are fleeting. Here today; gone tomorrow. When one has lived long enough, one can’t help but notice: without cause some lives are cut inexplicably short. Other aged ones sometimes wonder why their lives are so long!

Perhaps, the best we can do — even if there is inevitably some bittersweetness in it all — is to try to wake up and remain awake (yes, I stole that one from Jesus too!). To be aware, present, quickened, alive in the moments that are given to us.

Life’s not perfect. Or without disappointment and pain. But given the choice, would you rather it slip by unnoticed as you idle in the neutral of some anesthesized state? Or do you want to truly feel it… know it as best you can — the painful lowpoints in the promise of greater celebration of the heights? And even all the less remarkable minutes in between (wherein for us moderns, with all our advantages, aids and diversions, boredom risks standing in for despair).

Beloved, the big questions still stump me. But perhaps there’s something to savoring the mystery, alongside the passages, encounters, relationships over time, even the subway rides, in between our birthing cries and and our dying sighs.

I’m really not sure, but maybe…

See you in church,

Michael