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Monday, May 27, 2013

Reinventing One's Self


My daughter said I would like what her pastor had to say and she was correct.
I think you might like it also.

A sermon delivered by the Rev. Scott Dalgarno on April 28, 2013
Wasatch Presbyterian Church
Salt Lake City, Utah
Based on Revelation 21:1-6

It has been said, “We neither get better or worse as we grow older, but more like ourselves.” (Robert Anthony)

Come September I will be teaching a class I’ve taught once here and many times elsewhere: I call it, Reading The Bible On It’s Own Terms. I never tire of teaching it, mostly because I find the Bible endlessly fascinating. It has something to say about absolutely everything. Last week I preached out of the gospel of John, a gospel that is all about the importance of believing. This week I 

want to begin by looking for a moment at the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes. 

The writer of Ecclesiastes hardly believes in anything. In fact his 

(or her) treatise is about the lurking fear that life is just one accident following another – “Vanity of vanities,” he writes, “all is vanity.” We, all of us, have moments when we feel this way – like when we feel that an achievement from years ago seems now, if only for a moment, like so much chasing after the wind. 
“There is nothing new under the sun,” he says, cynically, not unlike
Shakespeare’s Macbeth who said, Life is “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” 
Life, for the writer of Ecclesiastes is just a great wheel with no 
beginning or end – nothing can really refresh it. 

Well, I’d like to address that notion this morning, and I want to do it by talking a little about something that has fallen on hard times since the crash of 2008. 

That thing is retirement. No, I’m not about to retire. Let me just say that and get it out of the way. I’m too young and I just found out how much my daughter owes on her college loans and I will be helping her pay that back for a very long time. And that’s fine. I can’t think of anything I’d be more happy to invest in. 

Now, I know a lot of people lost their nest-egg in 2008. 

A lot of people who thought that age 65 would mean they would be moving to sunnier climes are thinking again about that. They are putting it off, sometimes forever. 

The funny thing about the business of retirement is that it is only a recent development. 

It has only been a recent phenomenon that humans lived long 
enough to have the luxury of dropping out of the work force. 
It’s only been a short time that human beings could store up enough resources to make that a possibility. 

You know, the Bible speaks of old age as a blessing from God that some receive, 

but it knows nothing of retirement. 
The world was shocked to hear only a couple of months ago of Pope Benedict’s decision to retire. Papal historians quickly came out of the woodwork to let us know it happened before, 600 years ago. 

Let me tell you a bit about the first person I know of who was able to retire: 

Roman Emperor Diocletian retired on May 1, 305. 
He retired to the Yugoslavian coast city of Split and immediately began growing vegetables. 
He had been a phenomenally able emperor. He had declared himself a God, 
persecuted Christians and any one else he deemed an enemy of Rome. 
He unified the empire like few before him. 
What happened was that instead of appointing one emperor to succeed him, he appointed several “little Caesars” to reign here and there all over the empire. 
This led immediately to conflict, as each one wanted to be the single big cheese. 
In the midst of all the chaos, one of his old generals wrote him a letter asking him to take the field once again himself and unify the empire, bringing peace. 
And we have the text of what Diocletian said in response. 
He said, “If you could come here to Split and see these lovely cabbages I’ve grown with my own hands, you’d never ask such a thing.” 
A funny thing for a god to say, don’t you think?
Further, he said, he would never want to “replace the peace and happiness of this place with the storms of a never-satisfied greed."
Here was a man who had been the most powerful man on earth, who was more than content to give it all up and grow tomatoes and pumpkins. 
He had reinvented himself, and in doing so had found some joy in life. 

I am not particularly fond of the word retirement. It’s a cousin of other passive words like retreat, remove, regress. It sounds as if you just withdraw, settle down, settle back, tune out and hunker down. But we know that each new stage of living comes with its own set of challenges, demands, and sense of adventure. 

I know a fellow pastor who, in mid-career, began mentoring a younger one. 

The younger one, describing his congregation, said, “The median age of my congregation is over sixty, and you know how old people are.” 
My friend said, “No, how are they?” 
And the young fellow said, “You know, settled in their ways, slow to change, stuck in their ruts.” 
To which my friend, who’d recently done some study on this subject, said, “I don’t believe they are.” He had read and passed on to us information about how of the six or eight most traumatic changes in life, four or five of them will occur after 65. These folks have to deal with declining health, loss of independence, loss of mobility, loss of a spouse, unemployment. 

Far from stuck in a rut, sixty-five year olds are about to drown in some of the most dramatic changes life can offer. 

You know, when you’ve lost the person you’ve lived with for forty of more years, or you are forced out of your life’s work, the last thing you want is some upstart preacher saying, “Let’s do something new and innovative today.” You’re kind of sick of change and innovation. 

Yes, and it’s funny, but a lot of young people have the same impulse. Those who are out of college and yet not quite up to speed in the world of work and family often say to themselves, “I’m pretty confused and in flux now, but when I am 27 I will have decided who I want to be, who I want to do that alongside, and I will settle down, settle in and be fixed.” 

But life is seldom like that for anyone. 

There are just too many surprises. 

At Duke University they did a study of engineering graduates and found that only 30% of them were still in the engineering field just 20 years after. 30%. It’s even less in the ministry. 

I’m glad my daughter is going into nursing because the field is full of differing pathways. I know she will have opportunities to choose lots of new bi-ways if she get’s tired of any particular one. 

Sociologists tell us that people nowadays will, on average, go through seven job changes in a lifetime. 

An increasing number of educators are coming to speak of 

intelligence in terms of ability to adapt, as opposed to IQ. Why? Because life, for all of us, is a series of adaptations, moves, changes, beginnings and endings. 

I’m borrowing the title for this sermon this morning from the title of a memoir by the late Reynolds Price, A Whole New Life. It’s Price’s moving account of his struggle through cancer surgery, recovery, and beyond. As you might guess, Reynolds Price came, over years, to believe that his illness was, in fact, an invitation to a whole new life. But that took a lot of time. 

He tells how at first he denied his cancer; how he was filled with anger and resentment when he found out how sick he was; how he struggled in the pain laden months after his debilitating but life saving surgery. 
Here he was, once a robust man, active, athletic, at the prime of his life, the peak of his career, relegated to a wheelchair. But Reynolds depicts his path back from anger as a dawning realization that, in his words, “The old Reynolds has died.”
His old self, so many of he aspects of his former existence, were over. 
He could not get them back. 
Now, he could spend the rest of his life in grief over what he 
had lost, pitifully attempting to salvage some bits and pieces, OR he could choose to begin a new life. 
He chose the latter. He began all over again. It was not the life he might have chosen if he were able to choose, but it would prove to be a good life; a life very much worth living. 
In fact, he embarked upon the greatest period of artistic productivity of his life, turning out more novels, plays and poems than ever before, and better, too. 

“Find your way to be somebody else,” he advises; “the next viable you – a stripped-down whole other clear-eyed person; realistic as a sawed-off shotgun and thankful for air, not to speak of the human kindness you’ll meet if you get normal luck.” 

Now, retirement is rarely as traumatic as spinal cancer. Still, I think there are analogies. From what I have observed, the people who fail miserably at the challenges of the later years are those who fail to see retirement as a definite transition from one plane of existence to another. 

They attempt to salvage too much of their former life. 
I’m haunted by one story of a woman who had worked at a low wage job in a garment factory for over forty years. When she finally retired, her children thought she would be thrilled. She was miserable. She cried. Worse than that, she took to hanging around the gate of the factory many mornings, vainly hoping they would call her back to work. She even took an assumed name and tried to 
get hired, representing herself as some one else. That’s way too sad!
That just won’t work. Your old life goes on without you. Somehow they get by without you down at the plant, down at the office, down at the University. 
Whether you were stellar, or ho hum, it’s the same. They usually carry on just fine.

No, you can’t get your old life back. 
You need to lay your hands on a whole new life. 

Whether we have hope for retirement or not, all of us still need to find ways to prepare ourselves better for transitions that will come inevitably. 

If our only life is our work we are to be pitied, unless we can find some new life after work.
Maybe if we had some good rituals for retirement. In Japan, for example, there is a tradition in which, when a woman reaches retirement age, she takes all of her pots and pans and she presents them to her daughter or daughter-in-law. From then on she is expected to not enter the kitchen. That part of her life is over. A 
new one has begun. Some of you might want to try this at home. 
Many Japanese men begin retirement by dressing in a red kimono and doing something adventuresome that they have not done before, like climbing Mt. Fuji. 
I think that would be a very good idea. 
I know of an American man who, on the first morning of his retirement from an executive job came into the kitchen, looked into a cabinet and asked his wife— “Why do we need four cans of anchovies?”
She said she heard that and thought, “Oh, my God.”

My favorite part of the religion of Hinduism is just this sensitivity to the concept of retirement. It is key for Hinduism. Here’s why. The Hindus have this wonderful concept of dharma. Dharma means doing the appropriate thing – a thing appropriate to who you are and what stage of your life you are currently in. 

When you are four years old you are expected to play and dance and sing, and get comfortable in your body. 

When you are of school age, you are expected to participate in sports and exercise your mind to its fullest. 
Once you leave school, you are expected to engage yourself fully in the world of work and you are to engage yourself in a marriage, have children, make friends, make money. You delight yourself in the physical pleasures available to you, 
and you enjoy the possessions you acquire. 

Then . . . when your children begin having children, you enter a time of transition. 

You are expected, at that time, to become what they call a Forest-Dweller. 
A Forest-Dweller is someone, man or woman, who, having plumbed the worlds of work and family to their depths, now pulls back and focuses on the more spiritual aspects of life. 
That person is expected to leave the town he or she has worked 
and lived in. Moving somewhere else where you have no prior associations, frees you to focus on your inward being. You may paint, or play music or do any number of things to develop your spirit. 
And you take as much time as you need or can afford, living very simply. 
The Hindu has the prerogative of doing this with a spouse or on ones own, but it is open to both men and women. 
Christians, like Hindus, do not believe that history is a meaningless cycle going nowhere, one dang thing after another. 
We believe that God is Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end. 
God not only gets us going at the beginning, 
God also meets us at the end. 
More to the point of the challenges of retirement, 
God gives fresh beginnings along the way; new days, new lives. 

The Bible opens with Genesis’s declaration, “Let there be light,” as a new world comes into being, 

and it closes with a word we use in today’s scripture text from Revelation, “Behold, I make all things new!” 
All along the way there is transition after transition. 
Those transitions are not accidental. They are a crucial part of our lives. 
Because, you know, people don’t burn out from working too hard, or working too many hours -- they burn out from having work to do that is meaningless. They burn out when they have no more mountains to climb. People can go on and on and on as long as they taking a fresh look at life, as long as they keep finding 
new things to do or new ways to do what they have long found to be meaningful.
At 80, George Burns won an Oscar, and Marc Chagall created sets and costumes for the Metropolitan Opera’s production of Mozart’s Magic Flute.
At 81, Benjamin Franklin helped frame the Constitution, and Winston Churchill started his History of the English-Speaking People. 
At 88, Pablo Casals was performing his cello. At 89, Albert Schweitzer was doctoring. And at 90, Picasso, always a volcano, was far from extinct. 

It’s never too late to remake your life.

Remember Reynolds Price’s encouragement:
“Find your way to be somebody else,” he advises; “the next viable you – a stripped-down whole other clear-eyed person; realistic as a sawed-off shotgun and thankful for air, not to speak of the human kindness you’ll meet if you get normal luck.” 


                              email:               sdalgarno@wpcslc.org