SAD NEWS

In that past couple of weeks, the news from our denominational office has included obituaries of two pastors. Both of them were second career pastors, people who had sensed God’s calling later in their lives and were willing to answer that call. Both of them attended the seminary where I was teaching at the time and both were in my classes so I knew them fairly well.

There are not the first students from my teaching days to have died. Several students from my times teaching in Kenya have died—but given the realities of life in Kenya, those deaths, while sad, were not a total surprise. There have even been some students from my time teaching in Canada. A couple of students died as a result of existing medical conditions and so again, their death, although sad, were not unexpected.

These last two, however, were a bit harder for me to process. Both were older and their death were ultimately the result of accumulating enough years that their bodies simply wore out. What makes these more difficult is that neither student was that much older that I am—well, one was a fair bit older but the other was much closer to my age than I realized.

I am saddened by their deaths. They were students but because of the nature of my teaching style and the relatively small size of the clergy community in our denomination, they were also friends. I didn’t see either of them all that much beyond denominational events but we could and did talk and share and were concerned with each other’s lives and ministry. It is sad to think that I won’t see either of them again this side of eternity.

But their deaths also opened a door that I have pretty much been avoiding. I am getting older. Normally, I am not overly conscious of being 66 years old, unless of course it is one of those days when my much older knees are protesting and complaining. I am not sure exactly what age I perceive myself but it is definitely younger than 66. But as I was reading the obituary of the former student who was pretty close to my age, I realized that being 66 has some serious implications. I am in pretty good health, according to my personal observations and my GP’s evaluations, but the basic statistical reality is that I am closer to my death date than I am to my birth date. And since the latest scientific research suggests that the upper limit of human aging is about 120, by that most optimistic standard, I have lived well over half my life.

I deal with death as a regular part of my work. The pastor is one of the first people called in rural areas when death occurs. But most of the time, there is a professional wall between me and the death. I am concerned with helping the people I pastor work through their trauma and grief and so on. Without question, some of these deaths touch me and affect me—my professionalism isn’t something I use as a defence against my own grief.

But these two students dying of essentially age related causes at an age that I can identify with because of its proximity to my age—well, I really can’t professionalize that. To start with, I am not the pastor in either of those situations. I am just one of the many who knew them and who grieves their loss. And without the professional focus to distract me, I look at their loss more personally—and I also recognize the implications of their deaths for me and my context.

Their deaths are sad—I will miss them. Their deaths also point out to me that I am getting up there and could be closer to my own end that I want to realize. But in the end, I really can’t live well if I pay too much attention to the statistical realities that come with my present age. I know that I will die some day. I do take care physically—eating sort of right, sleeping enough, doing some exercise. But I am not really interested in living with the fear or dread of my death. The reminders of the potential that my former students death’s brought are real—but I think that in the end, I decided a long time ago to live until I die, without too much worry about when and how that will be.

May the peace of God be with you.

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ACORNS AND OAK TREES

My working chair is situated in the living room in a perfect spot. I can see the whole living room and the corridor that leads to the bedrooms and kitchen so I can keep track of what everyone else in the house is doing. That is important because the dog often parks himself there when it is time to go outside. The chair also gives me a great view outside allowing me to see trees, part of the road and some of our neighbours’ houses. That is important because my creative process involved a lot of staring out the window, waiting for the various neurons in my brain to fire and make connections so that the sermon or Bible study or blog post can take shape.

But the staring out the window can also be an end in itself. I really like trees and without moving from my work chair, I can see several impressive trees: a old oak, a mature maple, a couple of adolescent maples and a struggling oak sapling growing in absolutely the wrong place. Both this small oak and one of the adolescent maples are growing within inches of the house foundation and should probably be removed before they cause damage to the house and the walkways. I probably won’t remove them because I don’t own the house and an not responsible for that stuff, which is great since cutting trees is hard for me.

My bigger concern in the huge oak that fills about a third of the window view. This ancient tree must be 50 feet high and its foliage circle is likely that big around. One of the major branches hangs over the driveway and is growing longer and therefore closer to the day when I need to decide to trim it to protect the paint on my car when I drive under it. Right now, the branches are filled with nearly mature acorns which will start dropping any time in the next few weeks, to the delight of the squirrels and deer, both of whom will use them to fatten up for the long cold winter that we might have this year.

But in spite of its size and fruitfulness, all is not well with this tree. From where I sit, a significant portion of the branches are bare, dead sticks. They haven’t somehow managed to lose their leaves early—they haven’t had leaves for several years now. In spite of the heavy leaf cover and bumper crop of acorns, this particular tree is dying.

I am not a tree health expert and so I can’t say for sure but my guess, based on the size of the tree, is that it is dying of old age. It will keep going for many more years but each year, fewer and fewer branches will produce leaves and more and more of them will stand starkly bare against the sky. In a few years, the dead branches will start breaking off as a result of rot encountering too much wind or snow. The broken branch stubs will provide access to insects and other attackers which will speed the dying process. Its days are numbered—its death isn’t going to be immediate but it is inevitable. I probably won’t live here long enough to see its ultimate demise because trees like this live a long time and die a long death and I will likely move away in retirement long before its end.

So, the tree is dying. But in the process, it is still doing its tree thing. It produces leaves, produces oxygen, filters the air, grows acorns to feel local wildlife and perpetuate the species (this tree is most likely the parent of the poorly place baby oak in front of the house). It provides me with a soothing and even inspiring target for my “don’t know what to write starting into space”—being vaguely aware of the tree during the staring seems to be more productive than staring at the end of the living room or the dog.

The oak is dying—but it is still living, still doing its tree thing as best it can. There may be barren, soon to fall branches but there are also leaves, acorns and branches that are still growing. It will live until it dies, doing the best it can until it can’t do any more—and even then, a dead oak tree provides lots of great stuff for lots of great purposes. I am not sure that there is a better summary of a good life and death than that.

May the peace of God be with you.