Turning 60

marilynne robinson 2

“I’ve developed a great reputation for wisdom by ordering more books than I ever had time to read, and reading more books, by far, than I learned anything useful from, except, of course, that some very tedious gentlemen have written books.”

That’s Marilynne Robinson in Gilead, easily one of the most beautifully written novels I’ve ever read.

I reached for her book last night because I’m fast approaching a milestone birthday and because the book is in the form of a letter written by an – ahem – older pastor to his toddler son.  The pastor is dying, knows it, and wants his son to know who he was.

There’s more to the book than that, of course, but that’s the narrative framework.  (An 80-year-old pastor with a toddler son isn’t a bad narrative feature either.)

In addition to the wonderful way Robinson strings her words together, I’m struck by how well she understands the way a pastor might think – not only the small-town pastor in Iowa whose thoughts we read in her book, but my own thoughts and worries and doubts.

As I read the book, I realize that she’s speaking for me, if only I could speak with such insight:

“That’s the strangest thing about this life, about being in the ministry. People change the subject when they see you coming. And then sometimes those very same people come into your study and tell you the most remarkable things. There’s a lot under the surface of life, everyone knows that. A lot of malice and dread and guilt, and so much loneliness, where you wouldn’t really expect to find it, either.”

I’ve thought often about writing a memoir about my ministry, but the stories I could tell no one would believe.  They’d think I was making it up.  But the truth is, any pastor who’s been around as long as I have has seen it all.  And if not all of life, then a big enough hunk of it to be amazed and appalled and humbled.

Human beings are capable of so much – so much that is good and lovely, but also so much that is ugly and unseemly.  I wonder sometimes at how much pain people bear, how much hurt they endure, how indescribably cruel their lives have been.  And then I wonder at how resilient they turn out to be, how they go on, how they find the inner resources to live good, caring lives.

I’m coming up on a birthday tomorrow that I somehow didn’t see coming.  It was always out there in the distance somewhere and nothing to worry about.  And now it’s here, in just a few hours.  So, I find myself thinking about what I’ve learned and what I know to be true and what I would pass along – to a toddler son or to anyone who cared to listen.

And it’s my gratitude for the gift of life.

“Wherever you turn your eyes the world can shine like transfiguration. You don’t have to bring a thing to it except a little willingness to see. Only, who could have the courage to see it?”

(Photo:  That’s Marilynne Robinson.)

About Doug

I have been a writer ever since fifth grade when I won second prize in a “prose and poetry” contest. I am also a Presbyterian pastor, and for several years toward the end of my career I lived and worked in Zürich, Switzerland. I am now retired and live just north of Holland, Michigan, along the lake.

5 Responses to Turning 60

  1. Georgia Hamilton October 24, 2013 at 9:49 am #

    Doug, I especially like the last quote from Marilynne. I’ve had a really blessed life, and I’m reminded of it every day. There’s a lot I don’t remember about how it was lived up to now, but I’m taking one day at a time and not worrying about what I’ve forgotten! By the way, don’t sweat 60—it’s only a number! Pray God you have many more “numbers!”

    Georgia Hamilton

  2. Dennis Ulmer October 24, 2013 at 10:36 am #

    You hear it all as you age. “Life is what you make it”. Is one of the things that you hear. I’m quite sure as you said, “..any pastor who has been around as long as I have has seen it all…”. You will soon be answering a great calling. One that I think you have been waiting for. I’m sure that you already know what a great gift that is. Consider it your ultimate “Birthday Present” of your life. It is a great opportunity for you. You will be missed. But to receive a calling like this, it is indeed your gift of a lifetime, and I wish you and your family all the best. Happy Birthday, Doug. Enjoy your day, and soon your new life adventure! The work that you do enriches us all, and makes everyday as we grow older that much wiser.

  3. Ruth Lundy October 24, 2013 at 12:20 pm #

    Hope you have a wonderful 60th. Each day we have to be thankful for what we have.
    Possibly the last birthday you will have in Florida. I am very happy for you and Susan and your new assignment. You will certainly be missed, but thanks to technology and computers. Thanks so much for sharing your Blogs.

  4. Sandy Steffen October 24, 2013 at 2:10 pm #

    Happy VSD Birthday Doug (very special day) and many, many more!! Celebrate with abandon and remember today is the first day of the rest of your life. Blessings,

  5. bob sadowski October 24, 2013 at 4:06 pm #

    remember 60 is not old, FOR A TREE.

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