The wise beyond his years rocker turned premier Americana producer, T. Bone Burnett, once sang:
It's a funny thing about humility As soon as you know you're being humble You're no longer humble It's a funny thing about life You've got to give up your life to be alive
You've got to suffer to know compassion You can't want nothing if you want satisfaction
This little gem comes from "Trap Door" a song that crystallizes the insights of the Sermon on the Mount in about four rock and roll minutes.
It's a funny thing about love The harder you try to be loved The less lovable you are It's a funny thing about pride When you're being proud You should be ashamed
You find only pain if you seek after pleasure You work like a slave if you seek out the leisure
Burnett's little masterpiece has been playing in my head a lot this week as I ponder what it means to be a guy who has done ministry for 35+ years (if seminary and internships count) in the company of younger colleagues? My honey says I worry too much about being a cranky old man - something I want to avoid as much as possible - almost as much as I fret about becoming a boring old fart who always talks about "back in MY day!" That's one of the reasons that pesky "trap door" keeps singing whose zooming who, yes?
You see, I find myself wrestling with this challenge most when speaking with colleagues who hold very definite opinions but precious little experience. It is almost as if their certainty - and volume - exists in inverse proportion to their time on task. My father used to grouse about this as he aged, too. In his later years he often had to contend with hotshot MBAs who had never worked a day of retail in their lives. As a sales veteran with 40 years under his belt, I heard both the frustration and sadness in his carping. And over the years I have seen how this pushes people towards cynicism and despair.
That is, perhaps, why I've avoided attending clergy lunches comprised mostly of retired ministers. There are simply too many hackneyed war stories in the air in addition to nostalgia for one or another version of the good old days. As a young minister, those gatherings felt suffocating. Not only was there no room to ask questions about how things really worked in the local church - which would have held value for me - but these mostly older white guys were so used to being listened to that they couldn't shut up. Blathering on can be an occupational hazard for clergy - just ask our families!
All of which shows me that I don't have many good models for being an old white guy in ministry. I actively yearn to be in strategic conversation and prayer with young clergy about their challenges in the 21st century. I have certainly been blessed and helped by creative, compassionate elders and know what a lifeline their presence was in my life when times got rough. In fact, without the wisdom and careful conversation I had with four older men over the years, I would have crashed and burned. + First, was Ray Swartzback - urban minister extraordinaire - who over his 40+ years of ministry trained interns well past his official retirement. Ray knew the principalities, powers and politics of working in the local church and was skilled at problem solving in a poetic and practical way. He was a saint in my life and I still love him dearly. + Second was Jim O'Donnell - retired Roman Catholic priest - who used his retirement to start a ministry of presence in the Cleveland ghetto. My weekly attendance at Thursday night Eucharist, my monthly spiritual direction sessions and retreat in the Oasis House nourished my body and soul with the wisdom born of contemplation. + Third was Adolfo Quezada - man of the desert - who knew the realm of both the mind and heart and sometimes carried me through my darkest shadows. There were a few years we met twice a week for intense shadow work - and I can say without reservation that he helped save my life. + And fourth Joe Skelly - retired Presbyterian minister in AZ whose family came from Palestine. He, too, was a practical old soul with over 40+ years of ministry. He never pushed his stories on me but always invited me to his home to talk about what was on my heart. In the course of our conversations, of course, he would tell me tidbits of his journey. But never in an oppressive way. I have been fretting (as is my bent) over how to enter this new phase of ministry - being the old guy - with a measure of grace and usefulness. Most of the time I keep my mouth shut. As John the Baptist said about the coming of Christ, "I must decrease so that he might increase." Even when I hear harsh or stupid things, I try to keep quiet. God knows I have decades of experience shooting off my mouth to atone for so being circumspect is an deserved penance. Still, I am in a discerning mode re: how to be of service to Christ's church and God's people - especially younger clergy - at this moment in time. The work that Fr. Richard Rohr is doing these days resonates with me. He understands his role at this moment in time as an elder passing on the mystical contemplative tradition to a new generation - and he does it with humor and style. I like the work Walter Brueggemann is doing in retirement, too. He is writing and preaching a loving challenge to our obsessive consumer culture in ways that touch hungry hearts.
This summer, as I read and practice my instruments and pray and walk about, I am going to test the call of being a more intentional spiritual director. I am not yet ready to leave parish ministry - it is too much fun and this church is doing too many sweet things - and I love my colleagues profoundly. And yet something deeper is starting to brew, something that I suspect will ripen as next year's sabbatical takes shape and form. Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi is another old man who resonates with me at this moment in time. He puts it like this: So the story is: a person comes to the wise man and says, ‘how do you get wisdom.’ He says, ‘wisdom comes from good judgment.’ And how do you have good judgment? So the wise one says, ‘from experience.’ And where do you get experience? ‘From bad judgment.’ At this point we are in a very primitive place where peace is concerned, peace and justice. We are, in destruction, very sophisticated. So we can now have a Star Wars, and you can just imagine the billions of money and the kind of minds that go in to doing that. It’s amazing. At the same time, when you start figuring that we don’t know how to deal with a David Koresh without violence, that shows how primitive we are, how psychologically primitive, sociologically primitive, we are.
“It will take elders to sit with the younger generation, the people who are just opening up, and to talk with each other.
I see that the complexity of things is going to increase. I see that the current matrix cannot hold the complexity, the current matrix will have to shatter, and when it shatters there will be a great panic. In order not to have the panic, elders will have to hold the field. At that point, it is going to be really important to have those kinds of intergenerational conversations that will bring the same amount of sophistication that we have now in war, and in terrorism, and in violence, into peace and goodness, healthy social interaction. So, that’s what I see as a task.
THIS CLIP WITH WAYNE SHORTER - AT 80 - AND ESPERANZA SPALDING AT 30+ - GETS IT SO RIGHT...