Can I help it that I am looking back quite a bit these days? Older men tend to do that.
I look back partly because the tread on my tires is showing some wear, and it’s interesting to think about where I’ve been.
Also, I wonder if there’s anything that I’ve learned along the way.
A few years ago some seminary classmates and I applied for a Lilly Endowment grant. Our project sounded important, and the grant application was apparently quite convincing. We said we wanted look back over our decades of church experience and discover if there was anything worth passing along, perhaps to a new generation of pastors.
We even adopted the African word “sankofa” as the name for our group and the title of our project. But that decision may have exhausted our supply of creative energy. (Sankofa is a word in the Twi language of Ghana that translates – roughly – to “go back and get it.” The symbol is a bird turning around to find an egg and creating a heart shape.)
Don’t get me wrong. We certainly had fun with the grant money. We traveled around – Montreal, Pittsburgh, Austin, and I may have forgotten a place or two. We enjoyed good meals, and we played cards late into the night. I seem to remember that a good bourbon was a part of our research as well.
We somehow convinced well-known theologians in each of those cities to spend a week with us. In the mornings, we would crowd into their book-lined offices, ask serious questions, and then listen as we remembered how much fun it was to be a theological student. In some ways, I now realize, we were reliving our student days.
When our money ran out three years later, we hadn’t published anything, and frankly we hadn’t thought of anything that our vast experience of church service had taught us, nothing that a newer generation of pastors might find worth knowing.
We worked and worked and came up empty.
In the years since the grant ended I have thought often of our project, but haven’t thought of anything that we missed. Ministry has changed so much since I started that I find myself wondering if I really know anything that a new pastor might want to know.
On the way to the train station yesterday morning, I found myself walking with a neighbor who was on his way to a card game with some other pensioners in our village. Our conversation turned out to be unexpected gift.
After a few minutes of German, which he gladly indulges me whenever we meet, we switched to English, and I asked him what he did before he retired. He was an engineer, he told me, at work on ways to store energy. Energy from the wind and sun isn’t worth much, as it turns out, if you can’t save it for those times when the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing.
Unfortunately, he said, research today is almost entirely in batteries, not in the interesting methods he spent his life exploring and perfecting. I asked him how it felt to have devoted his life to something that no one today considered valuable.
He didn’t hesitate with his reply. He told me that the enjoyment was in the work – the endless fascination of it, the sense of discovery, the joy of progress. He seemed to have no regrets.
We reached the train station too soon, I thought, and so I headed up the steps to Track 3, and he kept going to his card game.
I think I would enjoy playing cards with him and learning from him. He has something to teach me.