Time to take stock again, five and a half years out and still counting. Herewith are some not-so-random observations about the golden years.
1. These years are by virtue of reduced professional involvement a time of unexpected selfishness, greatly so for the pastor once of a large parish. Nine times out of ten nowadays when the phone rings it rings for someone else... not to summon me to the hospital, or to alert me to a leak in the parish house roof, but to invite a grandson for an afternoon of electronic games. I'm no longer in the middle of things, nor am I the center of Sunday attention. The only person in West Hartford who calls me "Rev." is my auto mechanic who spied the honorific on a check before I had it removed from a new batch.
I am free to be irresponsibly me.
Panhandlers don't know my address (and, please, don't tell them!). I can retrieve the morning paper from the asphalt pan in front of the garage while wearing my pajamas. I can go to church on Sunday or stay home and read the paper and no one will accuse me of setting a bad example. I might even save a few thousand dollars and buy a Japanese-made auto the next time around, since I won't have any patriotic second-guessers in my congregation. I have no congregation.
I could never go back to the parish ministry, even part-time. I no longer have the energy or the patience for it. I ran the marathon (think parish church) for nearly fifty years; but now I'm out of practice. A mile jog (think Sunday sermon) leaves me breathless. Besides, I'm not sure I am any longer willing to forego Sunday afternoon football for the sake of shepherding junior highs around the world.
Leisure and luxury are easy to get used to. Sorry, the bishop made me do it, this stretch of intense selfishness at the tag end of my career.
2. The dimensions of "church" have widened. When I was firmly anchored in a particular parish, I tended to think of it as, for me at least, the primary focus of God's presence and work. Oh, I've always been thoroughly ecumenical, never narrow denominationally, and found room in my theology for all sorts and conditions of people. But there I was in the parsonage next to the parish house across the street from the steepled church. That's where I looked for and sometimes found God.
Bereft of pastoral duties I have scavenged for other sanctuaries. Yes, yes, we've more or less fastened our loyalty on another United Methodist Church in the neighborhood, changed all its light bulbs, in fact; but such commitments, I discover from conversations with other clerical retirees, tend to rise and fall with changes in the pastoral leadership (why should I be any different from you?).
You, if you are a frequent reader of these postings, will know of a temple with two large baptistries and one small hot one Barbara and I frequent thrice weekly. More than once I've entered the shower room at the Cornerstone Aquatics Center to the sound of an octogenarian Baptist humming "Jesus Loves Me." His pastor commiserates there with me about the dwindling state of the church. A rabbi, a university professor of hermeneutics, mentors me, between his pool laps and my stationary bike miles, on the meaning of "post modern." A lapsed Presbyterian from Pittsburgh, an avid reader of American history, revisits his memories with me, about the hymns he sang in a Calvinist Scottish kirk near the steel mills. A self-identified atheist asks me to pray for him, to get the new job he interviewed for (I did, he did!). An engineer, a Catholic, who spent a lifetime working on the Panama Canal, never fails to offer a pleasant greeting and goodbye to me, which, come to think of it, sound very much like a kindly benediction.
And, of course, there's music, music, music. Sixty concerts to attend between September 15th and June 30th, some of them in great halls, most of them in medium-sized churches, often with food and fellowship to follow the singing and the orchestration. Hartford may have a reputation for violence; but for me it has become the place where echoes of heaven's choruses touch and sweeten earth.
I can heartily endorse John Wesley's motto, "The world is my parish," though probably not in the way he meant it.
3. Life is good, filled with accomplishments and satisfactions and blessings, the last of which there were many I never anticipated, cultivated, or deserved. Everything considered, I'd do it all over again... and mostly in the same way. Like I said, the payback has been terrific. For a recent example: at the wedding three weeks ago in Upper Saddle River, one of the readers, once in my confirmation class in another century, read a passage from the Apocrypha and turned to return to his seat in the congregation. I whispered to him, "Good job, Kenny." He looked at me and responded, "I learned from the best." Hardware clerks may ignore me. The up and coming forty "somethings" in our neighborhood may have difficulty finding anything in common with me. Pastors of churches I visit can't seem to recall having met me the third time we come face to face. But those junior and senior highs I shepherded around the world (primarily, slicing the Big Apple) upon renewing acquaintances beam at me, hug me, tell me wonderful lies about all I did for them and how there will never be another pastor as important to them... you know, the stuff that makes a fellow think he used his years to good advantage. It's enough to make Warren Buffet envious.
Do you know what they also told me, they and a fellow parishioner at the aquatics temple? It's OK to be selfish. "You earned it," they say emphatically. But just in case the good Lord doesn't quite see it their way, I'll change some more light bulbs in the local Methodist church and do a little unofficial pastoring in the neighborhood and at the pool.