Thursday, June 27, 2013

Falling Upward: Reflections Upon Turning 60

 Walt Whitman

There's something about turning the big Six Zero that makes you reflective, I suppose. Your friends and family don't help, with all those questions: How does it feel? Do you feel old? Were you able to get out of bed okay this morning? Our American culture, which favors youth over age by a large margin, doesn't help either. We seem to see 60 as some sort of watershed, which leads people to say things like "Well, at least you don't look 60"--but, really, what does sixty look like?

Even though we know, intellectually, that there's no typical 60-year-old (just as there's no typical
teenager or young adult or millenial or baby boomer), the notion persists. My brother, who will soon turn 65 (speaking of old), wrote in his birthday greeting to me that he had no problems with turning 40 and 50, but somehow 60 just sounded really old! More encouraging to me was this note from a good friend: "Welcome to the 60s where great music and free love and flowers in your hair abound; may this be a decade of fun, freedom, and good health for you." Well, I'm not sure about the flowers in my hair, and I think they meant something different in the 60s by free love, but, overall, I much prefer this vision of the 60s. Let's hear it for fun, freedom, and good health!

While there are perils and unfair stereotypes that come with turning 60, I suppose there's also a bit of freedom as well. Richard Rohr in his helpful book, Falling Upward, suggests that we experience life in two halves. During the first part of life, we are concerned with what he calls building our container (getting an education, finding a career, building safety and security for us and our family). But once those things are attended to, Rohr says, we enter the second half of life. At this stage we have the opportunity to jettison much of the stress and strain that come with building and maintaining our reputations and securing our place in the world. Thus, we have the freedom, and perhaps even more time, to focus on the big, meaningful issues of life. Among these Rohr includes things like compassion, relationships, service, and creativity.

We also, Rohr says, become more secure in our own skin so that we care less what others think about us. This doesn't mean we become the cantankerous old fart who says what he thinks regardless of who gets hurt. Rather it means that we are no longer so concerned with "proving" that our beliefs and opinions are the right ones and that everyone who holds different beliefs and opinions is wrong. In fact, folks in this stage of life are free to become "both-and" rather than "either-or" kinds of thinkers. Because we have "seen so much and lived so long," in Shakespeare's words, we are in a better position to understand the deep-seated contradictions and paradoxes of life, and even to embrace them.

So, in the spirit of Rohr's book, here are a few things that surprise me about myself as I enter this decade of the 60s.

I'm surprised at how good I feel and at how little I want to retire.
I know people my age are commonly expected to be chomping at the bit waiting for retirement, but I have to say I'm not there yet. I love my job teaching literature and writing; I love the colleagues I get to work with; and I love my students. I experienced a profound re-invigoration when I came to George Fox University four years ago. I'm excited about becoming a better teacher, scholar, and faculty member, and I've got lots of stuff I want to write. I'm grateful to be in a creative community with writers and artists who inspire and encourage me. If my hearing and faculties remain intact, I don't see any reason why I can't be teaching at 70.

I'm surprised about how much I've learned about my wife since our kids left home.
Yes, that empty nest phenomenon is real. Our nest, which has been vacated and re-inhabited by our kids several times over the last five years, is, for the moment, empty. Only in retrospect have I become aware of how busy those days were when we had teenagers in the family. The days of going to multiple sporting events and performances to watch our kids are over, and that means we are saying to each other, in effect,  "What do we do now?" and "Who are you, again?" This experience is both exciting and scary. In my case, it's involved becoming reacquainted with Janet's passions and interests, some of which were put on hold as she helped care for our kids and supported our family through her work. It hasn't always been easy, especially since we tend to have very different interests, but the fun part has been seeing her light up about her art class or about landscaping plans for the yard. For the first time in years, we've had the time to sit down and engage in long, intense discussions about books and theology, and we continue to learn new things about each other.

I'm surprised about where my spiritual journey has taken me.
I was raised in a fundamentalist and sectarian religious group, and that has shaped my spiritual and religious experience in profound ways, both for good and ill. I was taught that the boundaries of the church were very narrow, specifically that only those who worshiped like us, read the Bible like us, and behaved like us would enter the kingdom. Our mentality was very much us and them. We were the (true) church and they were the world and never the twain should meet, unless of course we evangelized them. As I result, I felt I couldn't accept my Baptist, and Methodist, and Assemblies of God (and, of course, not the Catholics) friends at school as fellow Christians; rather they were part of that worldly crowd who needed to be converted. Also, I was taught that women were not equal partners in ministry, and I never learned in my church that social justice was part of the prophets and the gospel. It amazes me now that as a teenager in the 1960s, living in a highly segregated city in the middle of the country, during the height of the civil rights movement, I never heard a sermon or a Bible class about racism!

Fairly early on I began to question much of what I was being taught at my church, and I began to read everything I could get my hands on--from C. S. Lewis to Karl Barth to Paul Tillich--seeking desperately for another perspective on Christianity that might speak to me. In Lewis's Mere Christianity, I resonated with his description of mere Christianity as the hallway and the denominations as the rooms. For Lewis, the hallway represented essential truths that most Christians could agree on. Once you've found your room, he wisely said, be kind and graceful toward those who have chosen other rooms. As Lewis says elsewhere about himself, this vision of Christianity was broader and fuller than any I had known: to me, it was meat and strong beer!

I was 17 when I read Lewis's book, and it changed forever my view of Christianity. The years between 17 and 60 have been an ongoing search to find a spiritual vision and a religious practice that feels right for me, and I can't say I've arrived by any means. Like Walker Percy's Binx Bolling in The Moviegoer, I can at least say I've become aware of the possibility of the search. What I can say is that my journey has been characterized by these trajectories (I am further along on some of these than others):
  • From exclusion to inclusion
  • From narrow boundaries of salvation to universalism
  • From certainty to doubt
  • From faith as doctrinal belief to faith as action
  • From inequality to justice
  • From patriarchy to feminism
  • From God as personal and located to God as mystery and in all things
At 17, I think I imagined that by 60, I would have it all figured out. I would at some point become confident in my faith. I supposed that, like William Wordsworth, I would leave the radicalism of my youth behind and become more conservative politically and religiously. But it hasn't worked that way for me. If anything, I have more doubts today than I had in college: about God, about the authority and reliability of scripture, about the efficacy of prayer, about heaven and hell. And I'm learning to embrace the doubt and the questions, believing that to be a more honest and fruitful path than pretending the doubts aren't there It's a frightening thing to follow where your faith (or doubt) lead you, but it's also a more exciting journey than settling for an orthodoxy that seems to fit like a pair of pants you used to wear before you put on a few extra pounds. As Tolkien said, "Not all who wander are lost."

I'm surprised at how much hope I have in spite of many good reasons for despair. 
Anyone who can see lightning and hear thunder knows there's much cause for despair these days. My list may be different than yours, but there's lots in our world to worry about. Among the things I worry about: the continued acceptance of war and the glorification of violent solutions through guns; the ongoing harming of planet earth and the refusal of many to accept and address the reality of climate change; the continued inequalities for women and the injustice that prevails in most parts of the world. But what I worry about the most, and what I think is most tragic, is the failure of Christians and churches to love: failure to love the poor and the immigrant, failure to love the gay and lesbian, failure to love the enemy, often when the enemy is a fellow Christian with either conservative or liberal views. I have less faith in the institutional church than ever to address this fundamental failure.

And yet---in spite of all the causes for despair--I'm surprised at the hope I feel. Much of this comes from the students I teach and the twenty-somethings I know. They seem to understand intuitively some things it took me years to comprehend. We hear cries of despair that this group is leaving the church, but can you blame them when you look at the shape our churches are in today? The students in my classes seem to understand justice, compassion, and humility (see Micah 6:8) as preeminent values; thus, they have few problems accepting and embracing differences in ethnicity, religion, and sexual orientation, unlike my generation. Many of the twenty-somethings I know may not go to church regularly, but they understand the importance of doing meaningful work and the value of community, they have a heart for the poor and marginalized in society, and they still believe they can change the world. These folks inspire me and give me hope that all is not lost. And my colleagues, many of whom still believe against all odds that the university is a place where we search for truth, encourage me to live a life of intellectual honesty and to put my faith into action.

"Old men should be explorers," said T. S. Eliot, and Tennyson suggested there's more faith in honest doubt than in all the creeds. I'm hanging onto those two poets as I enter this new decade as well as my old friend and teacher, Walt Whitman:

This is what you shall do: Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to every one that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families, read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul, and your very flesh shall be a great poem and have the richest fluency not only in its words but in the silent lines of its lips and face and between the lashes of your eyes and in every motion and joint of your body.
Leaves of Grass