Rev. Thomas, the former General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, is now a professor and administrator here at CTS. Follow his timely, provocative writings on the issues of our day.
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All Flesh is Grass
Dear friends are adjusting these days to what someone once said of aging – it is “the gathering of diminishments.” Having endured difficult weeks of separation while he recuperated in the hospital and nursing care facility from health challenges, they are now grateful to be home together again, but finding that life involves many adjustments to altered circumstances. He heads off slowly to the apartment complexes’ mailboxes, grateful for a bit of independence, while she blends gratitude with anxiety about the possibility of a fall. She is learning to be thankful when a passerby shows up to help her load her walker into the car. They are discovering that meals-on-wheels is a wonderful service, but hardly a gourmet experience. Medicare covers a number of essential home care and rehabilitation services, but severely restricts what outings are permitted. They have conspired to schedule appointments and pharmacy visits to place them serendipitously near their favorite lunch spot at noon whenever possible!
Meanwhile, they continue a life-long passion for reading, watch with wonder and consternation the drama of the teenage years being experienced by their granddaughter, and give thanks for and worry about the lives of their daughters and son as they negotiate the rough terrain of employment bureaucracies in this early 21st century economy. They relish in the doings of members of their youth groups in the churches they served long ago who still look to them for inspiration and consolation even as they navigate the later years of their own midlife joys and sorrows. They are grateful for an attentive pastor, maintain a love-hate relationship with the email and Facebook pages that keep them connected but also manage to mysteriously consume epistles before they are sent, reminisce over a rich life, find occasions for laughter, watch the political spectacle with liberal bemusement, and above all cherish the love that has graced their marriage since the 1950’s. A prim and proper lady in my first parish once shocked me, blurting out upon turning 90, “It’s hell to grow old!” True. But my friends also bear witness to the fact that it is possible to do it faithfully and well,
In a poignant and beautiful essay (“Out the Window,” The New Yorker, January 23, 2012) poet laureate Donald Hall describes how he increasingly engages life through the window of his New Hampshire farmhouse. He recalls how his wife, also a poet, once described aging with the image of a horse running in wide circles, the circles growing smaller until they ceased.
“Twenty years later, my circles narrow. Each season, my balance gets worse, and sometimes I fall. I no longer cook for myself but microwave widower food, mostly Stouffer’s. My fingers are clumsy and slow with buttons. This winter I wear warm pullover shirts; my mother spent her last decade in caftans. For years, I drove slowly and cautiously, but when I was eighty I had two accidents. I stopped driving before I killed somebody, and now when I shop or see a doctor someone has to drive me. . . . New poems no longer come to me, with their prodigies of metaphor and assonance. Prose endures. I feel the circles grow smaller, and old age is a ceremony of losses, which is on the whole preferable to dying at forty-seven or fifty-two. When I lament and darken over my diminishments, I accomplish nothing. It’s better to sit at the window all day, pleased to watch birds, barns, and flowers. It is a pleasure to write about what I do.”
“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Ash Wednesday’s announcement is not so much a sign of fatalism as it is an invitation to courage, Lent not so much a time to “give up,” as a time to remember that the mastery we have thought to exert over our lives was an illusion all along. We will not live forever. Our children grow up beyond our control but also our protection. Our circles narrow. The independence we clutch with such ferocity is, in fact, an intricate web of interdependencies that is as shocking as it is comforting. And the rhythm outside our window of “white landscape that turns pale green, dark green, yellow and red, brown under bare branches, until snow falls again,” will continue beyond us, and without us. “The grass withers, the flower fades,” Isaiah tells us.
Over the years I’ve watched many people grow old and, as a pastor, have been invited into the intimate places of that experience. It is often harrowing and painful, this “ceremony of losses,” but the living of it can also be inspiring and deeply instructive. The imposition of ashes today reminds me that, short of some early catastrophe, this will be my experience as well. I am grateful for the mentors who continue to teach me good lessons, not lamenting or darkening, but pleased to watch whatever it is of the enduring Word that speaks beyond their window, whether it be birds, barns, flowers, or love.
John H. Thomas
Ash Wednesday, 2012