Wednesday, January 23, 2013

SECOND CUP— On achieving 70

It’s been some time since I’ve blogged (too bad, by the way, that there isn’t a more nuanced and felicitous term for these normally very personal journeys—something like “perjourn” i.e., a personal journal). It is time. Actually, I really didn’t stop perjourning; I’ve been writing some reflections about turning 70 but have experienced some reluctance to share. Yet, I think it may be time. If you are reading this, I guess, I decided that it is time:

Reflections on achieving 70

For most of my adult life, the biblical phrase “three score and ten” as a definition of life’s tenure has echoed around my sense of who I am, where I am, why I am, and where I am going. I don’t mean that in any morbid sense—quite the opposite, actually. I mean it in the human condition sense. Perhaps because I am a reader and a payer of attention to life, mortality has been a consistent theme in my life. It may be also because I’ve been a teacher of literature, Bible, and humanities; that fundamental fact of human existence—“it is appointed unto man once to die”—has never been far away from my consciousness.

My 70th birthday is achieved, and it calls me to remember and reflect—a primary spiritual practice, as I so often tell my students. What I am most aware of at this date is another fundamental reality—another life theme for me—that who I am, where I am, why I am, and where I am going is deeply imbedded in life with others. Friends and family and locations—biography, relationships, and geography: all sacred. So, my reflections in Morning Joe, over the next few days, will focus on persons and places and events.

Theologically, when God shows up in my life it is normally in connection with people in particular places and times. Often I rail at God because God seems so distant; the truth is, more than I admit, God has shown up in my life. Why am I reluctant to talk of these things? So, this reverie is really about “God sightings.” I believe God is profoundly relational—I mean that in the deepest sense of God’s ontology. I believe that the Trinity is an attempt to express that ontology. Like so many biblical and theological metaphors, it fails because God is simply beyond any capturing—even as it is important for us to keep trying. As created beings, imago dei, so are we fundamentally, ontologically relational.

The Rublev icon is, for me, the most powerful expression ever written about this unfathomable idea. The manner in which God, Son, and Spirit regard each other—the beauty of requited love; the chalice among them—the beauty of gifted love; and the open space at the table—the beauty of inviting love. We are welcome at this Table; we are welcome into this relationship. The power of the icon for me is that it is trinity and “quadrinity.”

The end of a year and semester and the beginning of a new year and semester, a birthday, a labyrinth walked in reverie and reflection, driving to Tabor Space for a final exam, another labyrinth—it occurs to me that God shows up still. God, when I’m paying attention, shows up. Probably more often, perhaps all the time; I’m just not slowing down enough. But I want to write about these unforgettable moments, these forever life shaping, formational moments and persons, liminal and often dark, when suddenly, like angels at a certain birth, luminosity and choirs and, yes, certainty, however fleeting….

The arrangement of these pieces will be random; I’ll not give into the easy tyranny of chronology. I am writing about kairos moments that really transcend time—in important ways these pieces are as fresh to me today, however tempered by life and reflection, as they were when they happened.

DEATH: That said, however, I will start with a first—first in chronology and, as much as it is possible to say, first in influence. He was born, lived six hours, and died—the short and disconnected life of Jeremy Todd Kelly. Our second son. We were still living in Red Bluff, CA. He died of Hyaline Membrane Disease, a disease and a death we have in common with the Kennedys. I’ve told this story so often that I’m uncertain what to say; the point of these reflections, however, is God. This death touched our lives in so many ways—it was our first really personal encounter with death; it has never been far from our consciousness; it is one of the reasons that we adopted our daughters; it began the life long process of changing me into a human being; it was, for me, the moment when God became Presence.

It was a long, hard day. To this day, I am grateful to my pastor, Jay Barber, for being present. (I think he actually drove home from a family vacation to be with us.) He knew what was needed for such times—I knew nothing. He made all the necessary arrangements—the ones that church and state seem to require. He left the phone calls and the explanations to me. Those were, of course, hard: disappointment comes hard for people who are eagerly awaiting good news.

That night. Judy still in hospital. Joel with grandparents. All the well-meaning persons gone. I am home alone. I am finally able to stop and to be. And the anger and disappointment and loss fight each other for control, even as I am out of control. These clichés finally give way to sadness. A profoundly quiet sadness in a profoundly quiet home in which a crib waits for a baby. Into that empty silence a Presence came. I’ve tried over the years to think of how to describe it and have never found a more apt image than the one I held that night. I was enveloped by a great warm bear. Living. Not like a coat or blanket to keep out the chill. Real. Complete. Not fearful. As angry as I had been and as sad I was, I knew who it was. I had a clear sense of “God,” and I had a clear sense of “loved.” How long did it last? I have no idea. I guess the honest response is that it has lasted ever since.

This moment is a touchstone.

In subsequent years, I have known the same anger and disappointment and sadness at life’s “damned dailiness,” as L’Engle said, or at its deeply frustrating meaninglessness. That moment returns—I remember. I know again that I am not alone.

While I still wonder at the “absence” of God in the death of Jeremy, I never wonder at the presence of God in Jeremy’s absence.

In important ways, this is the story of my life—of our life. Nearly all of the stories that follow this one are rooted here. My journey with God really begins here.

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