Reflecting on the First Fifty
Josiah howled as I started the van. Yes, he howled as he did a dozen times before on trips across town and across the country. I pulled into the parking lot at the veterinarian’s office and the cries ceased. With cat carrier in hand, I entered the clinic for Josiah’s 4:40 appointment with destiny.
The feeble feline relaxed as he was placed on the table. The doctor came in and gave Josiah a sedative which put the cat into deep sleep in less than a minute bringing a peace the cat had not experienced in months. A few minutes later the doctor returned and checked his patient. Satisfied that the cat had no awareness, he administered an intentional overdose of a mild drug….and Josiah slipped away quietly into time.
As I drove home, I found it odd that I was called to this task just over a week before my 50th birthday. Yes, fifty years. One of the “big ones” of individual anniversaries. I have seen this milestone coming in the distance, drawing closer. I’ve not really known how to respond. Who does? You get no practice at turning fifty. It is often seen as a bigger deal to family and friends than the celebrant. I’ve watched it draw near and now it is just a day away. I wonder what it will mean deep inside.
I guess it’s my good fortune that it falls on a Sunday. That means church and its associated joys and duties. It’s a third Sunday of the month so we’ll have a fellowship luncheon after worship. And, to top it off, it’s Father’s Day, highlighting the “Dadness” of the birthday boy. Might as well move July 4th up a couple of weeks and add some fireworks. All of this is going on, and who knows what my family has in store. With such a full day, it will be hard to find time to reflect on the birthday even itself. Fortunately – sort of – Josiah’s passing kicked me into reflective mode a bit early. So here on the day before “50” comes calling, I try to put a few thoughts together.
When I think back on the past five decades, I’m drawn to four significant influences that have shaped me:
Pain – The past fifty years have been filled with far more pain and heartache than anyone will ever know. Pain with roots in my own foolishness, in people dear and distant, in unavoidable circumstances, in decisions made from afar that found me. There has also been physical pain as my body has needed some patching up from time-to-time. The bright side? It seems that after fifty, I can anticipate more heartaches and more physical dilemmas as age takes its toll – cue Josiah one more time. I guess the first fifty have been a prep course call “Suffering 101.” My tolerance of pain is pretty high these days, never liking it but managing to live with it. I’ll face what’s next until those pain-free days beyond this world, which brings me to…
Christian Faith – I’ve been a church kid since birth. Yep, somewhere in a stored box is the Bible my parents were given right after I was born. Faith has always been important and central to my life. Familiarity led to belief; belief to commitment; commitment to professional ministerial work. I believe Christianity to be a living religion centered on God’s efforts to offer reconciliation to humanity. It offers humanity assurance that death is not the end. More, though, it offers a love-focused call to be reconcilers in this world through the power of the risen Christ.
All this said the Christian faith has had its challenges for me. It is foundational for my life but brings frustration when claimed by those who fail to live out their commitment to Christ. They offer only token affiliation. It provides a hope for any and all people but it has bred hatred from those who take its freeing power and turn it into an unachievable list of dos and don’ts. It is amazingly simple – “Love God, love others as you would love yourself” – and agonizingly complex – do I love one unconditionally who would dare to threaten someone I hold dear?
My Christian faith will continue to challenge and strengthen and call for study and service to others. It will be at my life’s core over the next fifty years but will remain concurrently fulfilling but always calling me to ask more questions.
Change – My parents were part of what was called “The Greatest Generation.” I am at the tale end of the Baby Boomers and I feel more like “The Challenged Generation.” Change and adjustment has been a theme for these past five decades. I was born into a segregated South Carolina. I was part of the initial group of grade school students in my district to have integrated schools. Many parents were unhappy but we kids didn’t really think it odd. Mixed races in school was part of who we were and are. As the world in recent years has become smaller, I’ve been amazed to visit and live in places that seem far more segregated than we ever were in South Carolina in the 1960s. This saddens my spirit.
I also mark by grade school years another societal change. From grades 1-6, American society seemed to be Dad working, Mom at home (except for teachers, nurses, and secretaries). Grades 7-12 saw a revolution in women’s rights. America began to view women as fully capable citizens. It was again a difficult change for some. As part of a generation that was lived out this change, I have a hard time believing that I was alive at a time when women were limited in their life goals.
Change has come in the thrill of my family’s first color television when I was ten or so to taking video clips with my cell phone. I’m delighted to type this reflection on a computer rather than a heavy manual typewriter with “white-out” by my side.
And beyond societal and technological changes, I’ve made personal choices for change. I was the first and only member of my family to venture out of the South. I’ve lived in major metro areas and rural towns. I’ve been in jobs of honor and have been laid off. I’ve been on public aid and have been blessed to have enough to contribute to others who are in the midst of tough times. Change has been a broad and personal theme for me in these first five decades. Now in my eighth year in Iowa City, I do appreciate the stability of my current situation. But I doubt the change will stop. After all, I see a few more gray hairs today than I had six months ago.
Humor – I’ve always thought of our world as an odd place. Odd and quirky and rather funny. I’m not sure where it all started. Maybe a steady diet of “The Three Stooges” and “The Little Rascals” on afternoon TV as a kid had a part in it. I do recall when the lingering feeling came clear. At the age of eight or nine, I snuck into my brother’s bedroom and grabbed the first paperback off of his shelf that looked like it had cartoons. The book was filled with smart aleck answers to dumb or obvious questions – i.e., a person trips and falls. A bystander asks, “Did you stumble?” A response might be, “No, the gravity is a bit strong right here.” You get the idea, and I did, too. My world of humor crystallized that day. Life was and is very funny!
Certainly, as the previous sections note, I’ve seen and experienced some of the serious sides of life. But how can anyone not see the humor in our efforts to live day-to-day. For example, there’s humor in spilling coffee as well as watching others spill coffee. We’ve all been there so we sympathize and realize we look equally silly. Any and all business meetings are ripe with funny moments. (My current co-workers are waking up on this one.) Shopping, dining, exercising, family time, church services, driving – all these venues and many more can be viewed with humor and fun. I believe that humor is the balance to keep the serious from overwhelming us. We are all imperfect people trying our best to be as perfect as possible and the results are endlessly poignant and humorous. I ended up a psychology major in college primarily because I enjoy observing human behavior. And such observations bring insight, opportunities for growth, and boatloads of funny moments as we struggle along together. As I move into past the age of fifty, humor will be my partner in dealing with the changes that lie ahead. It’s a funny and wonderful world. I encourage all to take things a bit less seriously and to laugh some each day.
I close with a remembrance that continues to spur me on. When I was in the first grade, I sat next to a boy named Keith. Keith was as typical as any first-grader could be. But in February of that academic year, Keith was not at school for several days. Sadly, our teacher informed us that Keith had been tragically killed while playing in his backyard. Workers were trimming trees near power lines. A branch got away and hit Keith. He died few days later.
I don’t know if any other kid in that class was affected but I surely was. My parents some months later showed me where Keith had been buried, one of the first in a new memorial park. From the time I could drive a car, I visited Keith’s gravesite a couple of times a year. That tradition continued through all my years away. It continued on visits home from Chicago and St. Louis and DC. I always made time to visit Keith’s gravesite. And in May 2006, on my children’s first visit to South Carolina, we went to that same memorial park for a variety of reasons. We visited the gravesites of my parents, my grandmother, a couple of aunts, and some family friends. But before we left, I walked over to Keith’s gravesite, now a bit worn. 1964 was along time ago. I paused then and I do so on this day before I hit fifty to ponder the experiences in my life that were missed by Keith. A fresh, promising life ended; my life moving on. Keith, forever age six, always brings me to my senses and keeps me grounded. Through all of the pain and joy; the faith and folly; the changes and challenges, I have had the blessing of fifty years and hopefully much more. Keith was not so fortunate. Keith reminds me in his death to remain a good steward of the life I have and what lies ahead.
The milepost grows near, only hours away, and my almost fifty-year old body is suggesting I get some sleep. My equally old brain agrees. Tomorrow brings a new era and some celebrating, followed by fifty years plus a day, and onward, blessed and grateful each morning I awaken. May Josiah and Keith, Mom and Dad, and others rest peacefully for eternity. I’m off to face fifty and the days beyond.