These Are the Good Old Days

My father did not live to reach the biblical “three score years and ten” (Psalms 90:10).  When my dad died he was only 63 and I was a kid of just 12. I’m thinking more about my dad lately because I’ve now passed the age my father was when he died. I am retired now and find myself in a life transition I did not fully anticipate.  As I contemplate what might or might not be in my future, it seems only natural to think about the past and  loved ones, including my parents, who are now gone. But I think also of my family today whom I love including my dear wife of 48 years and our adult children and their families.  And I can’t help but also ponder what lies ahead at this new stage of life.

In Ecclesiastes 2:16 I find that no matter how well we may have conducted our life, we will still surely die. I’ve read this verse and other related scriptures over the years but I’m now paying more attention. I’m beginning to think about the harsh reality that the mortality rate really is 100 percent.

So  with some misgivings I’m trying not to worry about what  lies ahead and I really am focused upon  a hopeful  future that was not widely available to my dad and to my parents’ generation.  Just 100 years ago, life expectancy in the United States was not quite 50 years.  In 1935 when President Franklin D Roosevelt introduced Social Security, few Americans lived long enough to enjoy a life after work. Like my dad, FDR was only 63 when he died in 1945. In 1955, the year my father died, the average American was lucky to reach the biblical 70 years. The life expectancy in America today is somewhere in the 80’s, with women usually living a few years longer than men.

Medical advances, nearly universal vaccinations, improvements in sanitation and the effort of individuals to maintain a healthier lifestyle have done much to extend the years Americans and others have to live. It was big news when President Obama finally kicked his smoking habit and then Speaker of the House John Boehner is often asked by media and even his constituents to defend his continued smoking.

We have reached a point where retirement is no longer a brief period of leisure time before death. Maybe we should retire the word retirement. It doesn’t fit well with the way many Americans now live. Bill and Hillary Clinton and George and Laura Bush are past the traditional retirement milestone age of 65 and like many Americans they remain quite active with work and a variety of social, church and community involvement.  

Every day this year in the United States 10,000 “baby boomers “, born between 1946 and 1964, will reach age 65. The boomers will redefine the direction we should take with the added years we will likely have for post career activities that was not an available option during earlier generations. I’ve been fortunate to work for several so-called post retirement years as a public-school superintendent search consultant, an international school’s accreditation consultant and a faith-based conference speaker. I continue to enjoy these activities because I meet new people and stay in touch with colleagues and I believe my work is useful.

What it means to be old is changing. Retirement is becoming more a process than an event. Nowhere in scripture can we find support for retirement from all work and volunteer related activity. As we live longer and as long as we are able and God’s gives us the strength, we can continue to look for ways to make a positive contribution to the lives of those around us. 

I now know God provides me with only this one day. We read in the Psalm 118:24 “This is the day the Lord has made, rejoice and be glad in it.” Patsy was a coworker friend of mine whose 35-year-old daughter was dying of cancer. When I visited her daughter in the hospital, she told me about this verse in Psalm 118 and asked what lesson I might learn from it. I answered   that God may be teaching us to bring a positive spirit to each day. She agreed but said the central message  for her was  that God promises us only today and  because He extends no promise that we will even be alive tomorrow, we should live this day without regret, being kind to others, seeking God’s will for this day  while mindful that there is no promise of tomorrow. 

If I make plans to meet with you tomorrow, in my mind I should realize that we will meet, if God is willing. Sometimes I will actually say to someone, “I’ll see you later, God willing.”  I don’t need to worry about the time I have left. Because of my  faith in Christ’s atonement , I have confidence from scripture including  2 Corinthians 5:8 that when  I die, when I leave my physical body, I will go to be in the presence of the Lord. 

While there are no promises, if the actuary tables are correct, it is reasonable for me to expect and to plan for several more years. I know I may be sidelined sooner than what I might expect but I also may have overtime and live longer than I thought. So whatever time is remaining I know I willlikely be here for a while and should therefore conjure up a good attitude and prepare a game plan for the rest of the way and remain sensitive and open to what God may have in store for me.  In poet Robert Browning’s   opening stanza of “Rabbi Ben Ezra” we seem summoned to get ready for the good future God has prepared for us.

Grow old along with me!
The best is yet to be.
The last of life, for which the first was made:
Our times are in His hand
Who saith, ” A whole I planned,
Youth shows but half; trust God; see all,
Nor be afraid.”

I want to cherish each day as a valuable gift from God. I therefore have a stewardship responsibility to carefully consider what is good use of the time I have available.  In Ephesians 5:16 we are encouraged to “redeem the time.”  As people age wealth and material things sometimes seem less important and personal relationships take on more importance. I want to become less concerned with things to do and more open and excited about interacting with and having fellowship with the people in my life.

Memories are good but dreams are better. Someone said that the past is OK to visit but you don’t want to live there. While I have  experienced a lot in the many decades I’ve lived so far, there is likely still more in front of me that I need to pay attention to and contribute to because  the outcome  of my life has not yet been decided. I need to look forward with thanksgiving and seek God’s will for my life every day.  I think I do this but some days I know I do it better than others.  More often than not I should be able to identify with the Apostle Paul when he writes in Philippians 3:14, “I press toward the mark for the high calling of God”. So my plan is to continue to be engaged with friends and family, church and volunteer and part time work activities.

 I may be trying to hold off boredom and the feelings of no longer being relevant, but I believe I still have something to contribute to the lives of those around me. As the years pass, I notice too that those whom I value become fewer in number because of life circumstances. Therefore, I need to reach out and create new acquaintances and friendships at church and in my community and at work while I’m still working. If I don’t, I will become increasingly isolated. If part of life is saying goodbye to people who die or retire or move on for some reason, then I must be open to inviting new people into my personal, professional and volunteer worlds.

I look forward with anticipation to whatever lies ahead. I remember fondly many life memories but I want to focus most of my attention now upon the future and the dreams and new personal and spiritual goals that lie ahead. Why not? After all I’m fortunate to possibly have several more years that God may give to me that I’ll be responsible for and I’ll be thankful for. And my prayer is that whenever my last day arrives, I will be able in good conscience to say as Paul recorded in 2Timothy 4:7, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” I think my dad would agree.

Building Bridges of Kindness

When I was much younger I remember being impressed mostly by intelligent and financially successful people. Now that I am somewhat older my admiration and attention is shifting more towards people who are kind and caring with others. Rabbi Abraham Heschel used to say he admired clever people when he was young and when he became old he found he admired people who were kind. Surely how we connect with others, if even for a moment, is so very important. Each person we meet was created by God and is loved by God. Could it be that the way we relate to and connect with others reveals what we really think about God? 

Sometimes when I’m discouraged and  in a negative mood  I’ll  try to remember a  generous expression  of kindness I have received from someone. Some caring person I’ve known always comes to mind and I can’t help but smile. I remember not so much what they might have said but rather how they made me feel. I’ve known these dear ones as friends and family members and some as acquaintances or even as strangers.

Expressions of kindness can change our attitude at least for a moment and sometimes even change our outlook with how we think about our world and the people we encounter along the way. I’d like to share one special memory of when this happened to me. Though long ago the memory of a certain stranger affects me still. It was during a university class project where the assignment was to investigate some social issue I thought was important. I decided to go undercover in an attempt to learn more about how day labor companies actually operate and whether such businesses served some public good or were simply economically exploitive of day laborers.

I was nervous when I opened the front door of an unassuming building in a seedy west side of Chicago neighborhood. The day labor business appeared to be in the economic shadows.  I had not shaved for a few days and wore old clothes in an attempt to blend in.  I just took a seat on a row of bolted down plastic chairs alongside several other men who were already sitting. I wondered about these workers and what life circumstances brought them to this place. 

 It was going to be another hot summer day. I looked at the wall clock. It was only 5:30 a.m. but already warm and humid. The men in the chairs were hoping to find work for just this day in return for a minimum hourly wage. The day labor firm contracted with several area businesses to provide a steady stream of workers needed usually for unskilled work in nearby factories on a day to day basis.

Some days workers might be told that there is no work that day.  But this day was different. A loud speaker was used to call out names of mostly men and a few women who received an assignment for the day. After about 20 minutes of waiting I heard my name on the loud speaker.  I was called up to a window where I was told by a clerk behind a glass partition to fill out papers.  Soon I along with nine or 10 other men were in a 15 passenger van being  driven to one of three nearby factories where  we were assigned to work on an assembly line. Two men and I were dropped off at one of these plants. I did not see either man again until the end of the day. 

It was an eventful day. My assembly line work of packaging rat poison in a poorly air-conditioned warehouse was not easy. I had to stay focused and keep up with the not so modern assembly line machinery as I place packets into designated boxes and made sure the line continued to move properly.

There were few smiles or greetings. I don’t remember anyone saying hello and there were no offers to shake hands when I met someone.  There was hardly any eye contact or words spoken by any one that I came physically close to throughout the day including the day labor office lady behind the glass window, the van driver, and the assembly plant regular employees. My only real contact occurred when I was told what was expected of me when I worked the line. I listened to the instructions and did my assigned job as best I could but I felt oddly like I didn’t matter and was of little if any value as a human being.  At noon I was given a box lunch and told by a company employee that I’d have 30 minutes and that I could eat at a nearby table. I soon returned to the assembly line. The afternoon was much like the morning.

After working nine hours, I along with the two other day laborers were directed to an exit door where we loaded into the same van with the same driver we had in the morning. There were two or three men already in the van when we got in. We stopped at another factory to pick up other workers who like us had been dropped off in the morning.  It took about 30 minute for the return drive to the day labor office where we signed a prepared check and received in cash our modest earnings.

 On the return shuttle van ride from the factory back to the day labor office I sat next to a somewhat frail and disheveled man who appeared to be in his mid fifties.  He was unshaven and wore well worn clothes.   Because we were day laborers together I was sure he lacked a regular job and dependable income. And he likely had little expectation for predictable food and shelter for this day or the next or for the one after that.

 He smiled and said hello and told me his name was Robert. And he asked me what my name was.  I was only thinking about my class assignment and had not expected this friendly greeting. I told him my name was David. He then reached into his pocket and pulled out a wriggled paper bag which contained in waxed paper a sandwich of slightly stale white bread with peanut butter and grape jelly. Without hesitation he looked at me, smiled again and handed to me half of his sandwich.  I was surprised by his generosity but quickly accepted. 

We then shared this modest early evening meal together and talked at first about not much of anything special. Robert smiled again and said “I think you’re new. How did it go today?” What followed was a real conversation where we shared and talked mainly about our work day.  At the end of the ride he looked into my eyes and smiled and shook my hand firmly and wished me well. I thanked him again. Then he was gone.  Robert reminded me of the angel “Clarence” from the 1946 classic Christmas film “It’s A Wonderful Life”. I wondered, had I just met an angel? I don’t know if I met an angel, but I do know I will always remember Robert and I’ll try to be more like him.

 Robert gave to me a sandwich, a smile and friendly conversation all during a van ride together. And he gave me much more.  I learned anew that connecting with and concern for others, including strangers, can be normal and spontaneous.  Generosity and kindness may come more easily from one who experiences poverty first hand and feels personally the struggle. It is often those with the least who give the most.  

Special people like Robert somehow let you know that their moment with you matters and is not just something on the way to something or someone else. I was reminded by Robert that good people can be found anywhere at any time and I need to be quick to receive kindness from others and to be ready to be kind to others. Kindness is the bridge between people. In a way we are all just strangers on the bus (or van) in this life journey trying to make our way home. I want others to be a little bit better off because of their time with me. It’s really that simple.  Robert reminded me how really important is the Golden Rule and the need to treat others the way we want to be treated.

The power we have is not in our titles, our degrees or our job description. Our strength comes from God and from our relationships with other people. Success is not worth a dime if it crowds out fellowship with and consideration for other people. If we crowd God and other people out we are left largely only with regrets.

I’m not sure how much I learned during my university class assignment about the day labor industry but I do know I’ll remember from Robert that I should connect well each day with everyone I meet during life’s journey.  We all can make it our goal each day that the people we meet will be better off as a result of the time they spend with us. They will remember not so much what we might have said but rather how we made them feel.

More than a Ride

He walked up to me late Sunday evening at a Indiana truck stop. Just thirty minutes earlier I had left a cabin at Bethany Beach in Sawyer, Michigan that my family was renting for the week. I had been thinking about my work week ahead when I decided to stop for coffee and top off my gas tank because gas was cheaper in Indiana than anything I might find in Illinois. I was at the pump when a young man approached me and asked, “Hey buddy, can you give me a ride?”  He was a man I’d guess was in his mid-twenties. He was not dressed shabbily and maintained an appropriate distance. The young stranger, went on to say, ” I hope you’re going to Chicago.”

Before I thought much about it, I responded, “yes, I’m driving west to the Chicago area.” He asked me again if he could join me for the drive. I simply said yes and motioned for him to get in. I said, “my name is David; what’s yours?”  He answered, ” everyone calls me Tim.”  Maybe I invited him to go with me because he appeared to be a regular guy just needing a ride. Maybe I wanted to be helpful or more likely I may have wanted to avoid guilt feelings I’d likely experience if I said no and turned him away. And it is harder to say no than yes in most situations. What I know for sure is I had little time to consider what to do. I wonder if my answer would have been different if I’d had more time to think it over?  What would you have done if Tim approached you some evening somewhere on the road?

I moved my stuff from the front seat to make room for Tim. Immediately I began to question my decision to give him a ride when he entered my car largely unencumbered with anything resembling a suitcase. As I drove away from the lighted area of the truck stop and turned west on interstate 80/94, I asked Tim why he was traveling so lightly. He replied that he did not have any “extra clothes” and the plastic bag he lifted from his lap for me to see contained all he needed for his anticipated time in Chicago. This was only the first of what turned out to be a whole litany of questions from me followed by brief, and to my way of thinking, vague even odd answers from Tim.

“Why are you going to Chicago?”

Tim responded, “A friend said I could probably get a job as a truck driver tomorrow morning.”

“Where is this trucking company?”

“On South Wabash.”

“What time is your interview?”

“I don’t have a formal interview but my friend thought I should show up early, about 7AM.”

“Where will you stay tonight?”

“I don’t know. It’ll have to be   cheap. I only have a few dollars.”

“Where are you from?”

“A small town in south west Michigan.”

“Aren’t there any jobs there?”

“No.”

“Do you still live with your parents?”

“Yes, because I have to until I get a real job.  My parents and I don’t get along very well. “

I asked other questions and Tim made an attempt to provide answers.  Unfortunately my probing questions were   annoying Tim while his responses were growing shorter. After a short time we both became quiet for what must have been half an hour. It seemed much longer. During the solitude my mind raced from concern about my safety to feelings of guilt for not feeling more concerned about Tim’s welfare.

 I had hitched rides sometimes in my student days and I never had any problems. But that was a long time ago and isn’t the world more dangerous today? I was having difficulty rationalizing the obvious differences between my long held beliefs about being concerned about others with my at this very moment largely self centered feelings. Where does my theology and my real life experiences meet? I remembered reading a church sign announcing Sunday’s sermon, “Do You walk the talk?”

Doesn’t the Bible tell us we are supposed to help people in need and take people we meet at face value? I wondered why I was so suspect of this young man’s motives. I know I can’t contribute much to solving national and world problems of injustice, poverty and war but can’t I at least assist, when needs are evident with the few individuals who flow in and out of my personal life?  In my mind my answer is yes but when I’m actually presented with opportunities to help others, even non- threatening opportunities, I’m usually not very quick to respond to obvious needs nearby in my daily life. To do so may be inconvenient or take too much time or otherwise somehow require too much of me. I was troubled the night I met Tim. I had to acknowledge to myself that my theological and biblical beliefs and my real life behavior were not exactly in sync. 

Tim and I continued on our nearly hour and a half journey until I dropped him off at an exit ramp in down town Chicago. I gave him some money and suggested he look for a room at the WMCA for men on south Wabash Avenue which I knew was nearby. He thanked me, closed the car door and walked away into the night.  After he left I first felt relief but soon I felt I was wrong for not doing more.  I know some Chicago streets can be unsafe at night. I should have at least driven Tim to the WMCA I was aware of and made sure he had a room and enough money for the night and bus or train fare to return to Michigan the next day. I didn’t do that.

Luke 10:29-37 records the events of another traveler, this one perhaps a Jew, on his way to Jericho when he was beaten and robbed and left to possibly die on the roadside.  A priest passes by the injured man without helping and later so does a Levite pass by before finally a Samaritan travelling on the road finds the wounded man and stops and helps him by finding safety and shelter and care for his wounds and payment for any of his expenses. This event recorded in Luke is all the more remarkable since Samaritans were not thought of highly or respected by Jews in biblical times.

I wonder what happened to Tim. I hope he is all right and even got the job he was seeking. Whether he’s in Illinois or back in Michigan I hope and pray he’s okay. I remember well the night I met him and I hope I’ll handle a similar situation better next time, if God is willing to give me another chance. I’m sure He will give me more chances. I may not experience the dramatic opportunity for service we read about in Luke 10 but surely I can be kinder, more attentive, more generous and more willing to provide at least a smile to everyone I meet along the way. Good Morning America TV anchor Robin Roberts who underwent extremely difficult bone marrow transplant surgery a few years ago believes it is a tragedy to have a life changing experience and miss the meaning.  I want to learn the meaning from how I responded with Tim.  It’s about taking to heart what I read on the church sign and really learning to “walk the talk”. I believe now as I journey along life’s road I must be respectful and caring to everyone I meet, especially those dealing with pain and heartbreak. I’ve not always done this.  My conscious goal now with prayer and with God’s help each and every day is to think and believe and behave more like the “Good Samaritan.”

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