Friday, August 01, 2008

“I Have Been Young And Now I Am Old”

When I was a child, my grandparents lived a few miles from my family’s home. We visited them frequently. I recall a small, white, wooden house with a large pepper tree in front, which I occasionally climbed. There were many such houses in the neighborhood, nestled under the shadows of old trees. The rooms inside the house were small, even to the eyes of a child under ten years of age. There was a cozy fireplace in the living room, with a burgundy-colored wing chair in front, and an old, patterned sofa to one side. The kitchen had a worn linoleum floor, and the stove stood on cast iron legs. There was a carved table in the bedroom; a collection of tiny bottles, probably for perfume, was arranged on a lace covering, spread over the table. Behind the house and separate from it was a one-car garage. A gravel driveway led to it from the street.

My grandparents moved from the house in 1958, and as years passed I had not been back to see it. Thirty-five years later, I unearthed the address of the house and went to search for it. Although the street had been widened and its name had been changed, the site of the house was not difficult to find. One would never have guessed that there had been such a quaint and peaceful neighborhood in the area, for the entire block had become a wrecking yard. There were no houses or trees for hundreds of yards. The wrecking yard was surrounded by a high fence, made partly of corrugated iron and partly of cinder block marked in places with graffiti, with gates of chain-link fence filled in with slats. Incongruously, there was an old-fashioned mailbox on a square post jammed into the three inches of earth between the cement sidewalk and the cinder block fence. The mailbox bore my grandparents’ address.

A sense of loss coursed through me, of course, and I remembered again my family’s visits in that quiet place in a much simpler and slower age. My earliest memories of my grandparents stem from those years, when I came to know those old people who had seen the turn of the twentieth century. In the early 1970s, their ashes were buried in a cemetery a few miles to the south of their old homesite.

Two days ago I turned sixty. Am I old now? On that day, as I was praying the psalms, I read, “I have been young and now I am old” (Psalm 37:26a). I was sitting in that same burgundy-colored wing chair which I inherited after my grandparents and then my mother died. It still has its original covering, and the cloth is only a little faded. Nearby is an old wrought iron stool that, long ago, I covered with a remnant of the patterned cloth that had been on my grandparents’ sofa.

From the moment we are conceived, we move toward death, and our path is marked by many lesser deaths and griefs. We live in a world that we often perceive to be indifferent and sometimes even hostile, full of pain and sorrow, heavy with loss and disappointment and frustration. Tragic headlines reveal the appalling extent of our world’s suffering in numbers that numb us. Our years extend and our memories preserve this burden of sorrow, even as we ourselves age and weaken and suffer continuing loss.

But still we love, look for joy and satisfaction in life, and hope in unseen things. It seems most illogical to do so. If we look only at this world, the evidence of decay and wrong is overwhelming: all things die, and human greed, cruelty, and indifference seem to continue unchecked. But although some individuals despair, and a few despair completely, our race continues to hope. Taylor Caldwell, in her great novel Great Lion of God about the life of Saint Paul, referred to this redemptive, never-quite-defeated side of humanity, when she wrote of “the alleged good that lay, like a pearl, in the slimy musculature of a bestial organism”. George MacDonald used even more poetic imagery when he said, “There is glory and might in the body, this vital evanescence, this slow glacierlike flow of aging mortality and revealing matter, this ever-uptossed rainbow of tangible humanity.”

The perfect beauty and eternal joy promised by God can seem as wonderful—and ephemeral—as a rainbow in the face of the unrelenting iron of mortality. Yet a rainbow, comprised of water and sunlight, is made up of the elements that age and corrode iron over time, until it is fully dissolved and can even become nourishment in soil. True love endures against mortality. “Our present perishable nature must put on imperishability and this mortal nature must put on immortality” (1 Corinthians 15:53). Am I old now? It doesn’t matter. “There are three things that last: faith, hope, and love” (1 Corinthians 13:13). And I have all three.

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