Just recently retired at age 65 from a career in pathology, I happened to meet a casual friend, an old university professor and president, in the church foyer. Himself long retired, he indulged the standard retirement question about what I was doing with my time. “Thinking!” I replied instantly and excitedly, “And boy! -- is it fun!” Sated and jaded to every kind of eruption from youthful students, except maybe “thinking,” and expecting in response a pleasantry as trivial as his question, the old professor was agape.
In my circle, mostly physicians and other professionals, retirement is the strangely leaden gate between a world of being forever too-busy and suddenly straining to retire the mind from the thinking business, and do nothing. Thinking is the last thing in the world most retirees that I have known want to do – they’ve spent a lifetime overdosing on it, and are looking for rehabilitation to be found in many, many sailings into sunsets on 5000-passenger cruise ships with nightclub shows and slot machines on every deck and orcas to the starboard to ogle, until money and interest runs out. “Had any trips recently?” is standard more focused question to ask a freshman retiree. Or reading history. “What you been reading lately, Toynbee?” Probably Barbara Tuchman. Or maybe finding it in tending roses or making bird houses for grandchildren. Nobody I know does square dancing or aerobic classes in slow motion, as they all do on TV commercials. Or not finding it. Untethered and at loose ends, not knowing what to do with so much time and wife not knowing what to do with a husband suddenly at home all day.
So nonplussed was my professor that apparently it didn’t occur to him to ask me what I was thinking about. I was thinking about God. And finding it, the novelty of it as well as the substance, exciting.
Although born and raised to the Word, as a pathologist I’d never had time at the microscope, or even shaving in the morning, for thinking about anything but diagnoses; or in residency tomorrow’s case presentation to the chief; or in med school class standing; or in college, exams; or in elementary school the multiplication tables. And that’s how I wanted it. If I had any mental energy left over, it went to uploading fiction, Updike and Hemingway were especially alluring, and to the non-academic enticements young men are susceptible to. Re. God, what’s to think about? God exists and that’s that, and SDA (I’m one) doctrines are settled and that’s that.
What was I thinking!
Perhaps it wasn’t that my retired professor was too startled to think to ask what I was thinking about. Perhaps he could tell by the expression on my face, and deliberately dropped the subject like a hot potato. Though his career had been leading out at Christian schools, could he have dreaded yet another in the parade of doddering and desperate old men sobbingly hailing the heavenly bus before it’s too late and disappears into the fog? Not to worry, professor, for my excited thinking had not been going in quite such a familiar path. Mine was not the usual old man’s return to the fold and flock – I had never really been there.
God, having created my mind for thinking about Him first, before everything else, had to wait with patience divine and beyond reason or logic or a sinner’s expectation, for me to retire to get my attention. Somehow retirement seemed to be His go signal and He hasn’t stopped goading me since. Mercifully!
Well, that strange encounter in the church foyer was nearly 30 year ago. My initial childlike excitement abated. And I find myself looking back at my looking back at my post-retirement “journey,” as it would be popularly called, certainly not a shuffleboard cruise, more an Easter Egg Hunt, sprawls and eurekas and all.
As I sit now at the keyboard writing this, the thing that suddenly puts me in awe is how organized it has been. It’s as if God not only had infinite patience but, when he finally had my attention, had an agenda, rather like at all those committee meetings I used to attend and sometimes chair. The agenda was not unfolded right off. It wasn’t until now when our meeting is nearing its mortal end that I’m beginning to catch how the master Chairman had planned it.
But that is a fast-forward. Back when I’d just retired and no longer was planted in an office swivel chair, I plopped myself into my enfolding den chair, a Nordic hand-made molded plywood Ottoman-equipped structure, rather an advance over the classic Eames chair, my library within easy reach but no microscope within 20 miles. Without particularly thinking about it I picked up the Bible, a KJV, that I’d had forever. Mothers usually are the donors of such volumes. If mine was, it was eons ago. Anyway, I’d never picked it up just to read it like it was in the top ten of Goodreads.
I found myself reading, yes, actually reading, the gospel of John, the KJV. That’s a good starter for a beginner, even a re-beginner, because it seems so simply written, even poetic, a quality I’d somehow in old age come rather to like, which is why I chose the KJV. But it turned out to be booby trapped. It doesn’t get you at first but when you’re done with the book you realize that therein Christ has laid down a cosmic challenge. As C.S. Lewis so wonderfully put it (I took to reading a lot of Lewis too), He’s either history’s most evil and cunning liar (as Satan has insisted since the beginning, in heaven and the Garden), or a lunatic, or who He says He is, the Son of God, the only being in the cosmos able to redeem mankind. That’s not exactly a relaxing read for a retiree, or anybody of any age. Somehow I’d never picked up on it before.
After this shock, I figured it was about time I really knew what the Bible itself said, from the horse's mouth, rather than from study guides as always before in school, or second hand from wise professors or commentators, too often with mischievous academic higher critical spin. And if the Son of God Himself, when incarnated as a man, could fight off Satan only by recourse to "it is written" and by "every word that proceedeth from the mouth of God," I figured that I, whom the tempting devil had found a piece of cake, should jolly well stock up on as much of what is written as my aging memory banks could hold. So I went straight to all the other gospels, and Paul, this time in the Phillips or 21st Century KJV versions, eventually as ebooks, scanned Revelation, hit on Isaiah, my new best friend, and found him (in most places) as poetic as John, even more poetic in the deep ancient way, and as remarkable a writer as Paul, the most lawyerly author prior to Luther. The bible is famous and notorious for stories, of which I'd had my full dose in cradle roll. Now stories didn't interest me as much as God's message and character. Lapsed kings and all the concubines and mass extinctions and plagues I deferred. They're not off the agenda. And I re-acquainted myself with E.G. White, whom I’d always before felt obliged to at least scan. Now to my surprise and chagrin, I discovered that she's a better read than anything on Goodreads, not only credible (read "inspired") but a really creditable writer, to me a huge plus.
It turned out that my timing for such an undertaking was fortunate. Was it a coincidence that just then a squad of brilliant degreed professors, formerly SDA pastors, had descended upon our church, taking over Sabbath School (equivalent to Sunday School), promoting scholarly doubt, one even called it holy agnosticism, a ton of it, tincturing or terminating every bible and SDA doctrine I’d ever known? Anyway, thus goaded, my Bible forays became more focused, a return to the school method but this time self-motivated. And, suffice it to say (and there's a lot to say), I found less than satisfactory scriptural evidence in the bible, or E.G. White, for the new scholarly stuff. Nonplussed and on impulse, I piped up with my objections in one of the Harvardian seminars, an impudent thing to do. It got me a scholarly frown, a sigh, and a “I feel sorry for you!” Well, at least the learned doctor didn’t say, “I feel sorry for you, dude.”
There in my reading chair, with what mental energy was left over, I didn’t bother with novels. No appetite for fiction any more, not even for Updike or Hemingway (outdated anyway). Instead, I tasted a dollop of Hegel, even some Kierkegaard (as my wife is Danish), but choked on Derrida. I eventually scanned Google’s Plato and was intrigued to discover that he is the flip side of God, made in the image of God but as a negative of Him. To everything God says and is Plato has a substitute, even for being “born again.” If God offers commandments, Plato offers ethics. If Christ offers Himself and salvation, Plato offers the “Form” and emanations. The only thing I really like about Plato is that he did his thinking sunk in a chair. The Platonic alternate universe was countenanced and then favored by The church from the third century to this day, while simultaneously somehow becoming the patron saint of agnostics holy or otherwise, as at Harvard and for our own Harvardian Platonists.
I had always known, and trembled at the thought, that such an interfacing with God as I was experiencing, call it a journey if you must, must surely involve certain insights into past behavior that most spiritual coaches nowadays love to call "guilt," proof of the evilness of God towards the human heart. Guilt! Run for your life! Guilt'l squash ya! Flat! Happy-hour Platonic "Form" religion is out to liberate you from guilt, by pithing your mind, or transcending you into Nirvana, so the thought of guilt never enters your happy head. But did you know that God is also out to liberate you from gravity-based guilt? He will do it by washing you clean, and you really need to realize full well what you have been cleansed from. Rather than a prosecutor God stoning you to death with guilt, a considerate God is giving you life by providing a list of poisonous things that He is moving you to yearn to trash. I like it that the vocabularies of Old Testament writers, even those of famously frowning old prophets with lightening bolts rather than halos orbiting their white heads, lacked the modern word "guilt." I don't suppose their language lacked it, their vocabularies did. Instead they were embarrassed by what they had done. Now that's the more apt word, especially for those matters young men are so liable to. Looking back, I sighed.
In due course I began to sense that I was in danger of being changed by all this into a new person, embarrassingly and uncomfortably different from the person I had always been. (Of course I thought of 2 Corinthians 5:17, the KJV version with its quaintly endearing punctuation and syntax: “If any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new.") Was I being “born again,” metamorphosed from a chrysalis to a butterfly, all viscera liquefied and remanufactured new? Was it the old familiar school-days altar call that always set me squirming? Not exactly, no soft background organ music and no squirming this time. God was becoming not just a “Form” but a person, as our theologians aptly put it, and I his servant, as Paul proudly announced he was. Yea, Christ’s friend, one of His brothers, as Christ Himself declared.
The long-retired professor to whom I expressed my excitement over having discovered thinking, is long dead. And at 88, I am sensing that my thinking machine is ready to retire, it’s winding down, getting pretty thready and unpredictable. But the insights, I’d now say inspired insights, that a quarter of a century ago felt fresh and keen as morning, are still coming, though now in my sunset years with the golden clouds scudding across my sky and the velvet fog settling in, they have taken on a quieter luster. But I expect that when Christ makes His promised return and I see and talk to Him face to face, not just by thinking about Him, I will, with excitement transcending anything in childhood or just into retirement, hear directly from His own mouth all I ever wanted to know, and unthinkably more.
What Was I thinking?
with profound apologies to Rodin
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