There are some things I can't bring myself to say to my college classmates. They, those who are regulars at our reunions, have adopted me as their chaplain. At least that is what Dr. Don Goldstein exclaimed as we sat together at Tiger McGill's one Saturday night recently when it was announced I would be praying: "Wow, we have our own chaplain." (To see what the chaplain prayed go to Purple Prayers)
And, of course, those of you who know me in other capacities know that I love it. But being a chaplain to as religiously diverse an assembly as the Williams College Class of 1953 carries with it unspoken limitations. That is, I cannot assume that Jesus, the inspiration for my lifelong vocation, has any cachet with fellow graduates, many of whom are Jews, some of whom are agnostics, and a couple of whom describe themselves as atheists.
But that's okay. Jesus, if his earthly ministry is an indication, would not be offended... despite the likely contradiction from Pat Robertson. The carpenter-become-rabbi of Galilee gathered to himself all sorts and conditions of humankind. If he had any aversion, it was to the self-righteously religious. I mean, he didn't say, "Woe to you, secular humanists!" He reserves his ire for the scribes and Pharisees, whose latter day equivalents would be pastors, priests, and leading laypersons.
Our class reunion the first weekend in October enjoyed the kind of weather the Berkshires offer at their fall best, blue skies, crisp air, crimson and gold foliage. The football team won a closely contested game versus Hartford's Trinity. Friends of more than sixty years bantered between snaps of the football. Who could ask for anything more from a glorious, convivial autumnal afternoon?
We could. And did. Because a shadow, a shadow of our mortality, clouded a cloudless day. The wife of our class president was at that moment in Bay State Hospital in Springfield MA with a stroke suffered the day before. Dear Joan was unable to speak, her right side paralyzed, the brain bleed a mortal threat. Husband John was, understandably, beside himself with anguish. One of his closest friends, godfather to his child, excused himself before halftime, because he was too agitated to think of anything else, much less a ball game, while Joan's life was in the balance.
We are, the Class of 1953, on the cusp of eighty. Canes no longer provoke teasing comments. Hearing aids proliferate. Senior moments abound. As we frequently say to one another, when visited, as we are now ever more frequently, with news of death and dementia: "That's the way it is when you last this long." We are simply facing the consequences of our mortality.
But, let the chaplain say it loud and clear, we are doing it with grace, kindness, and a rich sense of humor. Once we were all competition, for grades, prizes, salaries, positions, and the other symbols of status which drive the ambitious (from which category, the ambitious, Bobby Howard was not exempted, despite his mocking references to his work as a "poor parish priest"). Now we are full of concern and consideration for each other. And affection: my senior year roommate grabbed my hand when I offered a shake goodbye and pulled me into his embrace, not a gesture likely to have been seen in 1953 at graduation. And the gratitude! It has rolled in electronically in response to my reports on our reunions, this from men who in earlier years might have been hesitant to show gratitude, so we teased each other, sometimes mercilessly.
You've seen those smooth stones along the seashore, those which have had the rough edges worn away by a million tides. Living long is like that. Life, if it doesn't wear you down, wears away the rough spots on your soul. Sorrows and setbacks and the inevitable physical insults to this mortal flesh through the years wash away vanity and pretense and prudery. If such erosions of the ego are successfully (and unfortunately) resisted, then one ends up where one started, the young fool becoming an old fool... and there are few things worse or more off-putting than being an old fool.
Jesus didn't live long enough to make similar observations to those here offered by Critical Christian. To my way of thinking the baby born in Bethlehem was already an old soul. How else to explain his weariness with the disciples striving for positions of importance? How else to hear the sighs which accompany his command in Gethsemane to Peter to put down his sword? How else to read his repeated condemnation of greed and arrogance for the evil we do to each other? How else to begin to comprehend his willingness to forgive, to forgive the whole damned world for its ignorance and violence, done to him no less than to billions of others? I hear in his Sermon on the Mount the seas washing against the stones of the shore. I hear the voice of one ageless if but a child at his dying.
Jesus famously embraces a little child and tells his disciples that unless they become like one of these, they'll never enter the kingdom of God. I wish he had gone and said likewise with an eighty year old bent from the years but bright in his soul: it would have been equally instructive.
And then I could borrow the text for my next prayer for my classmates... if I could bring myself to do it.