The Boys at 60

There’s something about turning a decade older that gives one pause. It is a time for reflection, taking stock of where you’ve been and where you hope to go. This feels particularly true as I and a group of lifelong friends move into our sixth decade.

We’ve been together since boyhood and have walked with one another through times both joyous and hard. Richard Rohr in his book ‘Falling Upward: Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life’, writes that in the first half of life we focus on our identity: Who am I? What am I good at? Where am I going? Who will go with me?

But by the second half of life we’ve experienced how fragile life can be. We’ve lost loved ones, made mistakes, dealt with health issues, had our hearts broken. Rohr writes that such painful moments raise questions we’d otherwise not ask, and offer insights we’d otherwise not have. By the second half of life we ask different questions: What do I really value? What do I truly believe in (not what others tell me)? Where do I belong?

The answers don’t come easy. Yet the insights gleaned are ours alone to claim.

My life is graced with good friends. This past week six of us gathered for our annual ski trip to Loon Mountain, NH (known as Loonapalooza). We are growing old(er) together. Each year we ski, laugh (a lot), drink (a lot), eat (a lot). And sometimes we are serious together. We’ve added the ritual of raising a glass to our great friend Larry, whom cancer took from us two years ago.

Boys of Loonapalooza

There’s a wonderful saying that ‘when we laugh, we grow younger’. On our annual ski trip (for a time) we grow younger. That’s a gift that paradoxically comes with age. To each of my friends who are turning 60 with me this year (pictured left to right: Rob, me, Frank, Dave, Clyde, Tom), I say: ‘Happy birthday. Thank you for the gift of your friendship.’ Can’t think of a better group of guys to get older with.

Domesticating Jesus

Here’s a provocative quote by the Franciscan monk, Richard Rohr:

photo Rohr quote

Rohr challenges the tendency of the Christian church to domesticate the story and witness of Jesus. Some would say its been all downhill since 300 AD when Emperor Constantine had his battlefield conversion to Christ. With that conversion he merged the trappings of empire with the Christian story. Thus began a cyclical process of each generation coopting the way of Jesus to meet their own needs.

We see this with today’s Prosperity Gospel movement which teaches that God desires to bless us with material wealth and happiness. Joel Osteen the pastor of a mega church in Texas, marries this promise of personal wealth, health and happiness with the veneer of being a Christ follower.

In this presidential primary we see politician’s using their faith to support a political agenda. We have so called Christians calling for the mass deportation of 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States and ‘carpet bombing’ entire cities in Syria to root out terrorists.

Reading the story and teachings of Jesus in the Gospels, we see that his words stand in stark contrast to this tendency to domesticate. And of course, for people like me, who pastor churches it is also clear that I/we too contribute to this process of domestication. More times than I care to think about, I/we too have pulled away from the radical nature of Jesus’ teachings.

‘To walk in the way of Jesus’ says Richard Rohr, ‘is to enter upon a journey of transformation’. Transformation not only of me as a person but a call for the church to be a vehicle for transforming society.

This path of transformation as lived and taught by Jesus is a journey of servant-hood towards those on the margins, forgotten, oppressed. It’s about giving up control and allowing the way of Jesus to guide our path regardless of the costly places it takes us. The way of Jesus is the antithesis of the ‘prosperity gospel’ and politicians who would condemn or cast out. The antithesis of liberals who want to pick and choose when and where to get involved.

Says Rohr: ‘We made Jesus into a mere Religion instead of a journey toward union with God and everything else.’ It isn’t rocket science to understand the way of Jesus…but it also isn’t easy. Pope Francis understands this temptation to domesticate. On his recent trip to Mexico he challenged bishops and politicians to repent from their worship of power and privilege. He calls each of us to recommit to this paradoxical journey, ‘where the last will be first’ and ‘the humble servant becomes great’.

Imagine.

Cracked Pots

The Kintsugi pot, is the ancient Japanese practice of mending a cracked, chipped pot with a sealant. Originally cracked pots were sealed with melted lead, allowing the pots to hold water, rice, barley. In time the seemingly imperfect pieces were deemed to be beautiful because of the cracks and chips. Later, artisans would melt gold and silver to seal the cracks ensuring that the works became pieces of art.

photo Kintsugi vase

Richard Rohr, the Franciscan monk, believes that ‘our human imperfections/brokenness opens us up to receive God’s restorative grace. In his book ‘Falling Upward’, Rohr explores the spirituality of the two halves of life. In the first half of life we are generally clarifying our identity. We ask question such as: What am I good at? What am I passionate about? What values are important to me? Who to I belong to? Who will go with me? Such questions help us determine our identity.

“By the second half of life’, writes Rohr, ‘we’ve been humbled’. We’ve been humbled via poor choices or by circumstances beyond our control. Rohr suggests that by being humbled we become open to asking new and challenging questions: What is really important to me? What do I really believe about God, about life? (Not, what do others tell me I should believe, but what do I really believe to be true?). Knowing what questions to ask and wrestling with the question until an answer is found or an insight gleaned, is the gift that comes with falling on one’s face.

The paradox of growing older is that through our mistakes we can begin to glean wisdom. This surely isn’t true for everyone. I know people well on in years, who cling to childish ways of seeing and being. I know people who cling to bitterness and resentments going back more than 70 years. Such persons remain broken and profoundly wounded, trapped in their past. If they were a pot they would remain fractured and useless.

cracked-pots

But for those who do the hard work of growing beyond their pain, for those who wrestle insights and lessons from their brokenness, such persons become a source of inspiration and encouragement. Such restored persons encourage others who also struggle to move beyond a poor choice or painful circumstance. Friends in recovery from an addiction know what I’m talking about. An AA or NA meeting is full of cracked pots that have become beautiful precisely because of the hard work each person does to stay clean and sober. People in recovery know that their restoration to health is due not only to their hard work but also the support of community and their ‘higher power’.

Do you know a broken person who inspires you? Who inspires you because of their imperfection and because of their courage in overcoming difficulties and the hard won wisdom that they’ve acquired? Who are the Kintsugi pots in you life? Are you a cracked pot that has become beautiful too?

Living with Pain

I have several friends and people in my extended family who live with chronic pain. Pain that grabs you by the throat and takes your breath away. Pain that is so unrelenting that it can telescope your parameters as to what is possible, to the point that all one sees and knows is the pain. For some of us the pain is emotional for others it is physical. For some a combination of the two.

Richard Rohr the Franciscan monk and author writes that such pain can be the door to facing tough spiritual questions that we otherwise avoid. Questions such as: Is there really a God? If God is good and all powerful then why am I or the people I love suffering?

Such questions Rohr suggest arise when we are faced with difficulties and nothing is more challenging than chronic pain. I’ve known some people who have wrestled with such questions only to walk away from their faith. I’ve known others who have found meaning and strength in their spiritual life, giving them strength and hope.

In the classic book by Rabbi Harold Kushner ‘When Bad Things Happen to Good People’, Kushner reflects out of his own pain on the nature of God and the unfairness of life. He wrote following the death of his son Aaron who died in adolescence after a life long illness.

Kushner writes: “I’ve never received a good answer as to why God allows bad things to happen to good people. But I do know where God is when bad things happen.” For Kushner God showed up in the kindness of friends who didn’t give platitudes but simply listened. God showed up when meals were brought by neighbors and loving prayers were voiced by people he and his wife didn’t know. And, God showed up in a deep-seated awareness that he and his family including his son, were being carried through the most painful of times.

Can this awareness be proven, quantified or measured? No. But for Kushner this awareness of that loving presence he calls God, is a real as the death of his son.

For Kushner and so many others this awareness of not being alone is a source of hope. Hope opens something in the human heart. Like shutters slowly parting to admit a winter dawn, hope permits strands of light to make their way to us, even when we still stand in darkness; but hope also reveals a landscape beyond us into which we can live and move and have our being.

photo of candle

For those who follow the Christian calendar, December is the season of Advent when believers and seekers move from darkness towards light. December 16th is the beginning of Hanukkah in the Jewish calendar a festival of light in the midst of a dark time.

My prayer for all who journey with pain that ‘you be graced with moments of hope that remind you that you are not alone and that you are loved’. May this awareness illuminate our path.