In any event, after becoming an Episcopal priest and then being called as rector of St. Francis in Holden, I was asked by a parishioner named Alice Carr to teach in a program called W.I.S.E. (Worcester Institute for Senior Education). Alice was on the curriculum committee at the time. What I liked about the teaching - both in Elderhostel and WISE - was that the groups tended to be interfaith. In fact, over the past twenty years I've taught for WISE, my classes (usually I limit them to 22 students) are almost always about half Jews and half Christians. I find this to be a great gift. Also, most senior citizens are not shy. Not like undergrads. They have life experience and enough time to do the "homework." They are engaged. The courses at WISE are five weeks. I have taught one or two classes a year since 1998, almost always on Monday mornings. I just completed a course on the Wisdom Tradition this morning: we covered Proverbs, Job, and Ecclesiastes over five weeks.
For today, I asked the class members to write up their own "wisdom." Unlike the Torah and Prophets and New Testament documents, Wisdom literature is about life experience. "Consider the ant, you lazy bones," says the writer of Proverbs. It's about what parents and grandparents want to pass on to their children. Sometimes it's more the "school of hard knocks" than it is "thus saith the Lord." It's not dogmatic. Koheleth in my mind is a guy sitting at a bar sipping on a single malt whisky and telling anyone who will listen what he's observed. "There is a time and a season for everything under the sun," he says. " A time to be born. A time to die..."
Alright, here is the point of this post: after listening to Proverbs and Job and Ecclesiastes, I asked my Jewish and Christian students to think about what they might want their grandchildren to know as they navigate their way in the world. Or alternatively, what they hope someone might notice and say about their life at their funeral. I asked them to consider sharing what they had written with the class and many did. I also agreed to "model" for them the same thing. What I had to share is found below. It is what I pray I have taught my children, and my parishioners along the way, and those who have been my companions and friends.
Keep first things first. There is an old camp illustration with a big rock, smaller rocks, sand, and a jar. If you put the sand in first you won’t get all the small rocks and never get the large one in. But if you do it in the reverse, it can all fit. The large rock represents God. That’s a loaded word, I know. God and religion often push people to be “spiritual not religious.” But the root of religion is “to bind together.” Whatever your faith (or the lack thereof) always remember that you have a soul. Remember that you didn’t self-create yourself. So make time for “God” – or at least for the spiritual life if that’s a bridge too far. And put that first. And put family and friends at a close second. I’ve anointed many people at the time of death. No one ever wished they’d gone to another meeting. All the regrets people seem to have are about broken or lapsed relationships. So tend to those. The sand is work and play. It's the stuff of our days. It matters. It’s big. It takes up a lot of space. But it’s not first. Keep first things first.
Life is beautiful. It is not always fair, and it is often very difficult. But there is beauty to be seen and enjoyed in almost every day. Even in the cancer ward. Even in refugee camps. When life is difficult, consider. But every day find some way to enjoy life as sheer gift.
The world doesn’t owe you anything. This can lead to a kind of boot-straps mentality but I don’t mean it that way. I don’t believe in self-made women or men. At least I’ve not yet met one. People do sometimes overcome great adversity, but in every experience I have had with such people, they can tell you about someone who was a lifeline: a teacher, a pastor, a friend even when parents and family could not be there. So for me the lesson here is to be grateful. Say thank you at least once every day. And be there for others; and when they thank you, don't say "it's nothing." Say "you are very welcome." This is how, I think, we build community. Or at least relationships that make community possible.
Compassion and kindness are a way of life; commit yourself to them. They cost nothing but it’s still so tempting to judge those we perceive as weaker than ourselves. I’ve discovered that even the person who seems to have the most charmed life, however, is carrying some burden, and often a heavy one. We do not know the scars that others have unless they show them to us. But everyone is scarred. So be kind. Be patient. (I’m still working on the last one.)