Fifty-two. That’s how old I am, the number of years I’ve drawn breath here in the world God so loved. It is also, as you might recall if you think about it, the number of playing cards in a deck. Once upon a time as a boy, an older kid asked me if I wanted to play fifty-two card pickup. In the innocence, I said yes. The boy threw the deck of cards on the floor. Suits and numbers scattered everywhere, most right side up, some upside down. A howl of laughter. Then, “Okay, pick ‘em up!”
Ah, cruelty—the moral virtue of the heathen.
I confess to you that this fifty-second December of my life feels like that card game. Everything from people I cherish to my best laid schemes for future days scattered from hell to breakfast. My prayers of late are clumsy, my faith rickety. How is it that I find myself in such straights?
The preachers of my youth had an approach to sermons you could set your watch by: three points and a poem. I’ll follow that form here for I do have a trio of hunches as to why I am where I am. The poem is lagniappe.
- Frederick Buechner wrote “Any fool knows that when you have children, your whole life changes, but I was a fool who never realized the extent to which when you have your children no longer, your life changes again and almost more radically.” I was, and am, that fool. When the main content of your life has been getting married and raising children, the exodus of those children can leave you high and dry. If you were to say to me that’s what happens when you base your identity on someone or something other than Christ, I would have to turn and walk away so as not to laugh in your face.
- Mary Oliver wrote “There is something you can tell people over and over, and with feeling and eloquence, and still never say it well enough for it to be more than news from abroad—people have no readiness for it, no empathy. It is the news of personal aging…that one’s time is more gone than not, and what is left waits to be spent gracefully and attentively.” Recently, a dear friend told me of his cancer diagnosis. The doctors, hopeful, say “five years, maybe more.” The man is like a brother to me, his presence has given astonishment and delight to my life. Even though we do not see one another as often as we’d like, the thought of him not being in this world rattles me. If you were to say to me that the circle of life naturally involves death, but death for the Christian is simply the doorway into the presence of the Lord…yeah, I’d have to bolt. If I were to linger, I’d likely punch you.
- Gretel Ehrlich wrote about being wooed to Wyoming, the state whose name comes from an Indian word meaning “at the great plains.” In no time at all she observed how conversation, like the land, was windswept. “Sentence structure is shortened to the skin and bones of a thought. Descriptive words are dropped, even verbs; a cowboy looking over a corral full of horses will say to a wrangler, ‘Which one needs rode?’” That’s how I feel—windswept. Things that possibly once meant something to me, mean something no longer. As another westerner—Tom McGuane—said when asked if in later years he cared how or even if New York types reviewed his books: “My give-a-shit is broke.” If you were to say to me that you really wish I’d type $#*! instead of shit, I’d refer you back to McGuane. Then I’d ride away.
Yet here’s the deal. As I stand with all those life-cards scattered at my boots, and have an almost inkling as to why they’re there, a voice speaks. It is not a cruel voice, one with malice in mind. But rather it is one I’ve known since the innocence, a voice sharp yet soft: I’m sorry life’s like this, John. I am. Much of this is due to the fact that you’ve lived and loved a long time now. But look at all those cards the way that cowboy looked at those horses, and ask—which one needs rode? or—which cards do you want to throw away and which ones do you want to keep? Getting older is a dark gift, but still a gift. And for the record, I prefer clumsy prayers, and faith that’s not rickety is no faith at all.
If you were to say to me that I’m putting words in Jesus’s mouth, well, maybe. But I’ve loved Jesus a long time now, and he speaks to me in particular ways. Not special, but specific to the way I’m bent. So, that’s the gift I’m giving myself this fifty-second Christmas (self-care and all, you know). The gift of listening, and trusting, and clumsily choosing my next rickety steps.
In conclusion, your poem. It’s an oldie. But consider the source.
In the face of seasoned waves of evil
that we would sing that old noel,
that we would hang lights on branches,
that we would give gifts to others
even if that gift is only ourselves—
this, this is a defiance seemingly impotent
against the principalities and powers who
daily conspire to convince us that
we are alone and love is a lie.
But do not be deceived for the demons themselves
tremble at such quaintness.
Sisters and brothers, Christmas on.