Monday, August 30, 2010

Now I am sixty-five... (with apologies to A.A.Milne)

My inspiration

Cambridge, England

After a week that included torrential rain this particular day dawned bright and fair. I knew it was coming, but had stuffed the idea to the back of my mind, paying little attention to it until two or three days before it actually occurred; now I found myself early that morning sitting with my bible, my journal, and feeling glum. All sorts of thoughts ran through my mind, some of them less than charitable. I had turned sixty-five and there was no way on earth that I could ever again pretend I was young. Having been raised and worked my whole life in a culture that glorifies youthfulness, it had been possible to kid myself, but the march of time had brought any lying to myself to a conclusion.

As the day progressed greetings started popping into my Facebook inbox, together with cards through the letterbox. Most were gracious, some were humorous, one or two were rude, and my former churchwarden deigned to call me an "old man," not that I felt that old. In fact, in some ways I feel younger now than I did ten or even fifteen years ago. My brain is still working pretty well (after a fashion), and my elder daughter following her mother's genetic line has more gray hair than I do! The body is working pretty well, too, and the crippling back pain that marked my middle years seems to moved on to make someone else's life misery. I admit that I tire more easily, and am now convinced that televisions have been designed to encourage an evening nap before going to bed.

But here I am at that age when most of us are supposed to collect our clock with a little plaque on it and ride off into the sunset. Sixty-five has been perceived for several generations as the age at which you graduate from being a useful member of society to one who is spending your children's inheritance, as the old bumper sticker goes. That is changing -- for example, I cannot receive my full US Social Security for another year, while people all around us here in Britain are hopping up and down with fury about a proposed hike in the retirement age, but it will take several generations for this particular birthday to lose its sense of hope for some, and stigma for others.

I thought when I was around 45-50 and gasping under the load of college bills that retirement looked an awfully attractive option, but as the years have passed since then I have been changing my mind. I have friend and peers who are rejoicing in their new-found status as retirees, but while I respect the decisions they have made, sometimes for very good reason, it is not something that I find myself attracted to.

There are all sorts of reasons for this, but first among them is that I am not ready to leave the pitcher's mound and disappear into the dugout. Friends have said as they move toward retirement that they feel pretty worn out, and a slower life beckons. I fully understand that, and on a cold wet English winter's day when it is dark until long after breakfast and barely teatime before the sun sets again, I find myself wondering as I back my car out of the driveway why I am doing this to myself. But most of the time I find myself looking forward to the day ahead and the opportunities that are awaiting me.

Being on the staff of a theological seminary means that I no longer have to be at the helm of something, for which I am truly grateful, but in a creaking economy it can be frightening to find myself in the midst of raising a huge sum of money to insure the college's future strength and vision. Yes, I do sometimes wake up at night worrying about the challenges that lie before me. I miss parish ministry, but at the same time I get regular opportunities to preach, pastor, baptize babies, marry young couples, and bury the dead -- and that is a huge privilege. But it does mean that what I once got paid for I now do as a hobby (there is a certain penuriousness about the Church of England when it comes to clergy fees and expenses if you are a non-parochial priest).

The challenge of our campaign at Ridley Hall, Cambridge, will keep me busy for several years yet, and meanwhile I am part of a congregation where I am able to make a significant contribution -- I might slow down a little but thiswill mean that my modus operandi is altering to be more that of the tortoise/turtle than the hare! I believe with all my heart that those of us who have been around for a while still have a huge contribution to make, even if it is not as part of the mainstream of our society or church.

I have been reading a book by several faculty from Duke Divinity School and one or two others entitled Growing Old in Christ, and have found myself appreciating their notion that growing old, becoming a elder, is not the problem that our culture wants to make it be, but a privilege that the church would do well to honor -- and we would do well to live into. My emotions like the idea, but I am still in the process of getting my mind around it.

The evidence suggests that my generation are likely to have a devil of a job adjusting to being old, senior, elders, golden-agers. Many have not saved for this chapter of their lives, some have ragged familial relationships, and others still are likely to find that the hedonism of their youth will not hold them into old age. This places a huge opportunity in front of the Christian churches, and it will be those of us who are in the final quarter of life who are best positioned to help them over the ultimate threshold that awaits us all.

Am I happy to be sixty-five? Not really, but it does seem that there is an awful lot waiting to be done. As Billy Graham once said when asked about retirement, "I don't read anything in my bible about the apostles retiring." I have been on a bit of a Robert Frost jag of late so let me leave the last words with him as he paused in the New Hampshire snows:

The woods are lovely dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Whatever happened to discussion and dialogue?

Whatever happened to dialogue and discussion? It seems that much that passes as interchange has disappeared, with the online world being the biggest killing field. Almost everywhere you go looking for intelligent input there is little or no thoughtful response to something that has been said or been posted. An honest and astute interplay of ideas is becoming rare because instead of responding rationally people seem determined to respond viscerally, ad hominen, and with raw emotions rather than enquiring mind.

Online forums (fora?) have become settings in which moderating or dissenting voices are literally drowned out by those who shout and pontificate. Each online setting develops its own peculiar brand of political correctness, and woe betide anyone who crosses a particular line in the sand. Often these correctnesses are contrary to the original intention of the owner of the site, and they will lean heavily in one direction or another. There is in many places what can be described as a Rush Limbaugh approach to conversation: not to listen to what another is saying but to shout the so-and-so down because he or she has no right to say such things in this setting, and besides, any fool knows that their position is wrong and not worthy of serious consideration.

The result of such a quarrelsome modus operandi is animosity so that those with helpful insights on a particular subject in that setting refuse to post there any longer because, honestly, life is too short to put up with that sort of wrangling. There is a particular site that I have visited for a long, long time and will probably continue to visit because it is helps me to stay up-to-date with things that are going on, but last week I wrote the owner to say that I will no longer be contributing because I just don't have the stomach for the bruisings I so often have been given. I am delighted to engage with people who read the materials and want to discuss them, but I am no longer willing to be treated as if I am weak in the head, apostate, someone who taken up arms against the western world.

Wherever I look, on either side of the Atlantic, there is animus being hurled around online as one adamant group takes on the other. Scurrilous things are said which people should not be allowed to get away with -- but because people like me have now opted out, they do. This only makes them bolder, less reflective, and more bombastic, so the whole sorry cycle is intensified. Whatever one's principles or presuppositions, some of the things that I have read about the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, the President of the United States, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Newt Gingrich, James Dobson, and so on, and so on, should be challenged because they are a parody of the reality. If there is such a thing as freedom of speech, and I believe there is, then individuals should not be allowed to get away with some of the things they write or say.

In a sane and ordered setting this is possible, but in one where an unyielding pack mentality prevails, the pack's job is to pounce on anyone who strays into their little domain and questions what they hold to be precious and true. Anyone doing so reaches the point in the end where we find there is no longer any delight in banging our heads against this particular brick wall. Besides, no one is listening. The result is that creative debate does not take place, lines in the sand become concrete bunkers, and constructive dissent becomes impossible.

When I was in seminary and university in what is now the distant past we were rigorously schooled in the fundamentals of logic so that we might learn rationally to analyze an argument and respond to it in an informed and reasonable manner. It was some of the most valuable teaching I had, but in today's forums that rules of logic and principles of rhetoric have all but disappeared. We have delineated ourselves into what are essentially two armed camps slugging things out. Moderating voices are sidelined and so the answers now HAVE to be right or wrong, black or white, left or right, liberal or conservative, traditional or progressive, and so forth, and so forth.

I am not sure that discussion in most places on the Internet as they are presently configured can be redeemed, partly because I am not sure that those who shout and holler from atop their particular soap box want to hear any other position or view than their own. They are convinced that they are right, they have the truth, and others are so wrong that alternative voices do not deserve to be heard. To function this way is to stray into very dangerous territory that will have disasterous consequences in the long term.

When this happens among Christian people then we have to examine ourselves to see if this is how we learned Christ.

(Also posted on