One of the hazards of living into your eighth decade is historical loneliness
One of the hazards of living into your eighth decade is historical loneliness. By that term I mean the difficulty of finding anyone in listening distance who can remember with you to the time you were young and the world was too.
In my travels in retirement as Critical Christian I discover again and again that I have a deeper memory of the church I am visiting than anyone else at the coffee hour. During tea and shortbread, for instance, at Scottish Heritage Sunday at First Presbyterian Church, Stamford CT, some of whose members in ancient of days were my Scouting buddies, I have in desperation made my way from one claque to another in the social hall asking, "Anyone here go back to the 1940's?" One fellow took umbrage asking me in reply, "Do I look that old?" Do I?
At the oldest congregation in Hartford, the setting centuries ago for Connecticut's claim on every license plate to being the "Constitution State," I have yet to find anyone who remembers a pastor from the 1960's by name of Voelkel, whose son was the star on our seminary basketball team in 1955. And the first time we worshiped at the oldest church in West Hartford, I asked the woman serving lemonade on the terrace after the benediction how long she had been a member. "Forever," she replied. "Fifty years?" I countered. "Forty," she admitted. "Not enough," I said, "I'm looking for someone who remembers my seminary classmate who grew up here, whose father was the organist."
Church websites are of little help. Click on "History" and up come a few paragraphs of pabulum about how great and wonderful has been the church's witness through the years; but few specifics, especially about any pastor whose term at the church was distinguished primarily by a lapse in behavior.
What prompts this rueful observation about living too long is a recent search, in which I am still engaged, concerning the history of a church I pastored for a single year, 1954-55, the Newtown United Methodist Church down the hill in the Sandy Hook corner of the town whose name the church carries. I'll not repeat the stories I've often told of that fleeting pastorate. You can, if you are curious, refresh your memory of my experience there by going to the review of a Sunday service early in our return to Connecticut in retirement: Newtown United Methodist Church. My investigation is focused on the son-in-law of Charles Ives, a lawyer who married the composer's only daughter. He was an elder in a New York City church and may have been instrumental in the Newtown Methodist church's acquisition of property enabling it to move its building across the street to a more commodious location. So I phoned First Presbyterian Church, got the Email address of the archivist; but he drew a blank on the name George G. Tyler, promising, however, to get back to me after he had found someone of sufficient age and competent memory to provide the information I requested.
At what point, I wonder, did I become Mel Brook's thousand year old man?
The Newtown Church celebrated its 200th Anniversary last year. Their website description of the event makes it sound like the congregation completed two centuries of a thriving witness near the shores of Lake Zoar. I know better. The District Superintendent who sent me there assured me that if the church closed during my pastorate it would not be held against me. That is, the D.S. thought it should close. It didn't. This past year it received more than one hundred new members. When I heard about the bicentennial I Emailed the church office and hinted that I, a previous pastor, would be available to help them celebrate, and remember that winter Sunday in the basement when five of us gathered around a pot-belly stove for the service. Either they never got my electronic message or they thought I was a figment of my imagination. I felt like Rodney Dangerfield. But Miss Manners will be proud of me. Instead of getting annoyed, I took advantage of an offer on the church's website to purchase a brick in the walkway from the street to the church. Mine will read: "In Honor of Pastor Howard, 1954-55."
Imagine, just $75.00 and church members will soon be able to step on me every Sunday.
A retired colleague in the UMC ministry offered me no sympathy when I told him this story. He allowed as how he had a lousy memory. In fact, he didn't remember me, and I served in the same Conference with him for forty-five years. But I remembered him, could list, in fact, the local churches he served during his salad days. Ignorance is bliss, they say. Do they also say a sharp memory is a curse?
Sixteen year olds think so. When Pa or Grandma feel obliged to provide context for their advice, which usually begins, "When I was your age...", adolescent ears shut down and adolescent minds go somewhere else, however polite the demeanor. The same goes for anyone else in the middle of life confronted with a septuagenarian burdened with a long memory. As it was with the cashier at a diner last Saturday evening as we sought to refresh ourselves after 500 miles of driving. I asked her for directions to a church in the town (Sandy Hook!) and started to explain my connection to it. Her eyes glazed over as she looked past me, relieved of the necessity of answering me as she attended to the next paying customer.
Ah, the loneliness of the long distance rememberer!