Shuck and Jive

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Reflections at 50 or Closer to Death than Birth

Today is my 50th birthday.

I am enjoying the well wishes on my Facebook wall. Thanks to Facebook I never can complain that not enough people remembered my birthday. I do love friends and family from all over interacting there. I get birthday greetings from people I have never met. Some say, "Happy Birthday." Others say it in a clever way. Still others offer a personal sentence of appreciation. I like them all. It is nice.

In fact, if that isn't nice, I don't know what is.

I have been reading Kurt Vonnegut's novels in order. I decided to do it this summer. I just finished his seventh,
Breakfast of Champions. He was 50 when he wrote it. It wasn't as insightful as some of his others, but it was fun. Vonnegut himself gave it a grade of "C". In the novel, in which he said he was making chaos of order, he said he wanted to clear his mind of the junk it had collected and let it all out. The via negativa.

He was 50 in 1973. I turned 12 in 1973. I lived on a farm.

On my tenth birthday we moved to a little farm in Whitehall, Montana. It was an enchanted childhood when I think about it. I even had a pony. My father was in his early 50s then. He is in his 90s now. My mother will be 88 this fall. They both work hard, still today. They don't live on the farm of my childhood, but they work their garden in the eastern part of the state next to my brother who watches out for them.

My parents have always worked. I don't work. I have a job, a career even. I call it work. I say I "go to work" but in my mind it isn't work. I preach sermons, talk to people, think about God, write on the computer, perform rituals, attend meetings, engage in righteous causes, and shuffle a few papers. I like it. But it isn't work.

Farm work is work. I don't do that. I did it as a kid but I didn't like it much. My father did it because he liked it. He was a professor with a Ph. D. and what all. He could have spent his time teaching, writing, researching, whatever. But he really liked farming. He would say, "I don't want my teaching to get in the way of my farming." He also says, "Don't do as I did. Go where the money is." And so on. I think he made pretty good choices. He did what he wanted. Perhaps that is why he is 93.

Not counting seminary, I am nineteen years into the ministry. My parents don't really get me even as I am a product of both of them. My mom is religious. My father is secular. I am religiously secular. A secular religioso. It is just confusing. Sometimes I don't get me.

Today I am 50. I am closer to death than birth. No one has written that blunt truth on my Facebook wall yet today. I guess that would be considered rude or morbid. Ah well.

The awareness of being closer to death than birth causes pause. It is an invitation to take an inventory or to name the clutter as Vonnegut did in
Breakfast of Champions. He was closer to death than birth when he wrote that novel. Morbid or not, that is a statement of fact. He died in 2007. He was born in 1923. In 1973 he was closer to death than birth.

I will consider myself fortunate to live as long as he did. Actually, I will consider myself fortunate if I died today. Why not? There are many good reasons why I could be dead already and I'm not dead so what is left is extra innings. I might as well enjoy them. I might as well follow the advice of Qoheleth:

Be well dressed for every occasion,
and be presentable in every way.

Wake up. Suit up. Show up. Live life.

My father wanted me to be a chemical engineer. My mother thought I would inherit her father's phi beta kappa key. I come from a line of smarties on both branches of the ancestral tree. Even this summer when visiting my parents the conversation turned to where I went wrong in college and dropped out of my predestined plan. It was 30 years ago, folks! I have moved on. I did what I wanted at the time. I became a disc jockey then a minister.

Because of the accident of choices, I met a lovely bride and have two children and 30 years of interesting life experience. If I had stayed in chemical engineering I could be the president of Halliburton now. Perhaps I could be dead of a freak accident at an oil refinery, or in jail for killing someone in a drunk driving accident, or who knows? No one knows. Life is a series of accidents. You ride it and hang on.

Regrets? Clean them out of your brain by writing a book if you have to. Or a blog.

Yes, religion is a weird choice for me, I admit. I declared myself an atheist in high school and told the minister who officiated at our wedding that I didn't believe in God. I was kind of mouthy. He told my future mother-in-law that we shouldn't be married. My lovely and I have been married 28 years. So it goes.

Yet here I am. Drawn into religion despite myself. I wanted to search for "truth" and the path of professional ministry has been a rewarding one. I can't say I have found "truth" but I have enjoyed the ride. I have found little truths. I also found my voice.

I have had a lover's quarrel with the "God thing" my whole life. I can't quite pin that Old Man down. I try to be honest about that. It just gets me in trouble. People tell me I don't believe in God. Ah well. I think it is more their problem than mine. I do like to talk about God while not sure at all what I am saying. Whatever "God" is just won't let me go. I live with the chaos of it all.

I know that is frustrating for my conservative brethren. They want essential tenets of the faith. I can hear them say:

How can you sell the product when you aren't clear about what the product is? These liberals doubt the atonement and the divinity of Christ. They don't hold to the authority of the Word of God and don't call sin sin, for the love of Mary. And now we have gays in the belfry. Ministers are officiating at gay weddings and celebrating pagan festivals and promoting books by the Jesus Seminar. How do you run a business like that?
I did genealogical work about ten years ago. I discovered I had Presbyterian roots. Before the smarties on my ancestral tree there were Presbyterians. I have to admit, I doubt they were liberal Presbyterians. They were probably five point Calvinist, essential tenet, hard-nosed true believers. I am sure they wouldn't think too highly of the infiltration into the "faith delivered to the saints" of sissy liberal humanist ideas like evolution, psychology, and criticism of the Word of God.

If conservatives get their way they will put on my tombstone,

Liberals like Shuck ruined the church.
That could happen tomorrow. I am closer to death than birth after all.

It Could Happen Tomorrow is one of my favorite shows on The Weather Channel. I admit to the occasional creepy apocalyptic urge.

Maybe they are right. Perhaps liberals like me have ruined the church. That could be a bad thing. Or...maybe the church needs a good ruining. Like Kurt Vonnegut did with his writing, maybe it is time for us to make a little chaos out of order.

Either way, for me, to affirm a list of essential tenets would be like trying to play softball in a straight jacket. The best I could do would be to get hit with the ball and take my base.

Not so much fun. I hope we find a way to get along, live and let live, or depart in peace.

So I turn 50 today.

I am closer to death than birth.

I was feeling a little mopey about that.

Thanks to my Lovely and my spawn, my parents and family, my little congregation of chaos makers, and my Facebook friends, I feel OK. Pretty good actually.

I am OK in my own skin.

I am happy with what I have done so far.

I am a secular religioso and I am fine with that.

I can be 50.

If this isn't nice, I don't know what is.


  1. Happy Birthday, John. I found that turning 50 was the beginning of a wonderful chapter in my life. Hope you find it to be a wonderfrul time for you as well.

  2. I have been reading your blog for years and assumed you didn't have children. I don't remember you mentioning them?

  3. Beautifully written, John. Thank you for being.

  4. Happy Birthday, John. I passed that 50 mile marker over 29 years ago, so I can feel death a lot stronger than birth. My wife of 56 years and I both agree...where were you (or someone very like you) when we needed you! You could be my pastor any day. I long ago accepted my disengagement from organized religion...being home churched is much more satisfying. I enjoy much of what I read on Shuck and Jive, but seldom am driven to comment. Today's birthday posting was so close to home I couldn't just let it pass by. Thanks and keep up the good work! Dave Slater

  5. @marion Thanks! I am looking forward to the new decade already.

    @Mrs RevDoc Two old babies in their mid 20s. Don't talk about them much on the blog so they won't later have to enter a 12 step program! Because my life can tend to be quite public, I have always tried to grant them private space and not include them in my escapades.

    @Snad I rolled around with the dogs, too.

    @Dave Thanks! I so appreciate that you have been reading and decided to comment. Comments like that mean more than you may think.

  6. @ John - as I suspected (and hoped!).

  7. Pretty good, John. Happy belated birthday.

    Here's you list of essential Presbyterian tenets:

    (this space intentionally left blank)

    Pretty Vonnegutesque, no?

    As for selling a know your product quite well. It's our humanity.

    Love you, John. The dark side of 50 is the better side.

  8. Happy belated birthday. Yours is one day after mine . . . but I'm a few years past 50. Virgos Unite!

    When I turned 50 I changed my name to Sea Raven. I figured I was half-way through, not closer to birth than death . . . but who knows?

    Thanks for a wonderful sketch of yourself . . . and all the best for the next 50 -- or however long we have.

  9. Thanks, David. : )

    As for selling a know your product quite well. It's our humanity.

    That's not so bad!

    @SeaRaven Since my birthday, I have found a lot virgos who have come out of the closet. Hope you had a happy one, too!