The words of my friends

Last summer, when I was on Sabbatical, i read Parker Palmer’s latest book, “On the Brink of Everything: Grace, Gravity, and Getting Old.” Parker has been an inspiration for me for many years and his book, “The Courage to Teach” was very instrumental in my style of pastoral ministry. He is one of those people who I consider to be a friend even though we’ve never met face to face. He will probably never know how important his words have been to my formation and how much I appreciate his essays and books and other writings. I have many friends who I know only through their writings: Thomas Merton, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Elie Wiesel, Henri Nouwen, and many, many others. Their influence and companionship on my life’s journey are as important to me as are the face-to-face friendships that I treasure.

I consider Parker Palmer to be a mentor. He is 15 years older than I and for all of the time that I have been reading his writing he seems to be a bit out ahead of me, exploring territory that I will one day need to face, but am not quite ready.

It is encouraging to read his latest collection of essays because he is not facing aging and the end of his life with fear. This is not to say that he doesn’t experience fears. He is honest and says that he has fears - always have and always will - but he is not conquered by his fear. Nothing characterizes his writings as much as his gratitude for the gift of life.

He speaks frankly of his diminishments, but also of the benefits of aging. “I’ve lost the capacity for multitasking, but I’ve rediscovered the joy of doing one thing at a time. My thinking has slowed a bit, but experience has made it deeper and richer. I’m done with big and complex projects, but more aware of the loveliness of simple things: a talk with a friend, a walk in the woods, sunsets and sunrises, a night of good sleep.”

He has reminded me of something that I have noticed. As I said, I’m not his age, but being 65 is an age where there are more than a few people who consider me to be over the hill. Well, if indeed I am over the hill, one thing I have to say is that the view from here is pretty good and the angle of descent isn’t very frightening. Parker quotes one of Kurt Vonnegut’s characters in “Player Piano:” “out on the edge you can see all kinds of things you can’t see from the center.” Parkere says that the view from the brink is striking, “a full panorama of my life - and a bracing breeze awakens me to new ways of understanding my own past, present, and future.”

One of the things that I deeply appreciate about the friends I have is that they have found ways to embody courage. Parker Palmer has wrestled with clinical depression, he has resisted the urge to end his life by suicide. He has been hospitalized for bouts of mental illness. And he has been frank and honest when discussing these life challenges. My life has given me different experiences, but I am grateful for his frankness, honesty and courage. Courage is a quality that is not very common in our day. Courage is difference from brashness or over confidence or combativeness. Courage is the ability to remain true to your core character and values even in the face of fear. As I said, it is a very uncommon quality these days, one that political leaders rarely can find. In a climate of ruling by fear, courage is a rare gem.

One of the things I deeply appreciate about Parker is his continuing ability to draw around him people of all ages. He does not confine his relationships to those who are his age. He is effusive in his thanks for Mariah Helgeson, who helped edit his book. He goes on to say, “I will not mention the fact that she’s less than one-third of my age. Given her level of expertise, this seems extremely unfair!”

I’m not sure how you can “not mention” something that you are mentioning. Not everything he writes makes sense to me. Certainly the result is that by his not mentioning her, we all know and appreciate her contributions to his book. Parker has dynamic friends who are at many different stages of life. He appreciates the diversity of opinion and approach and he knows how to cultivate relationships. It is a quality that I hope to emulate. It is one of the things that I like best about my job. I get to work with babies and parents and schoolchildren and teens and elders and mid-career people. The church is one of the few remaining true intergenerational institutions left in our society and nearly everyone I talk to in the church wants it to be that way. Elders speak of how important it is to have children. Teens speak of the value of seniors. We don’t always behave in the right way to attract and retain members of all ages, but we all at least give lip service to the goal of being an intergenerational institution. And there are times when we succeed handily. I’ve taken enough mission trips with people in their teens, twenties, thirties, forties, fifties, sixties and seventies to know that the best youth ministry doesn’t come from youth mission trips, but rather from intergenerational mission trips. Parker has and continues to give me inspiration to pursue relationships with people of all ages.

I am grateful for the friends I have met face-to-face and those I have known through their writings. And there are a few other good friends. One I know through his music. Leonard Cohen sings, “Well, my friends are gone and my hair is grey / I ache in the places where I used to play.”

My friends are not all gone, though some have gone before me. And my hair is more white than grey these days. But I ache in the places where I used to play. And I laugh at the joy that the words of my friends bring me.

Copyright (c) 2018 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!