By Philip Turner
This past June family and friends joined me in the celebration of my 83rd birthday. Normally, big birthdays come with a new decade: 60, 70, 80, 90, and even, in this day of medical wonders, 100. But for me 83 marked a big birthday. For various reasons, on this birthday, I realized that the life I had lived — as a priest of the Church, a missionary, a teacher of ethics, the dean of a seminary, and an author — had come to an end. At first, this realization made me resentful. But then it occurred to me that I was entering a new era filled with challenge but even more with promise.
This new era is certainly one of challenge. Old age is a period of decline — of physical and mental powers along with one’s social status. It is a period of life in which we are being stripped. Our professional life is behind us, our friends are dying off, and our society does not really know what to do with elderly people. There are no two ways about it! But this paring down brings with it the possibility of real blessings. Chief among them is unclaimed time — space in the passage of days, months, and years that is free of the business of life. As such, it can be used to assess one’s life, come to terms with things both done and left undone, and most of all make new beginnings. In short, the stripping of our lives can be viewed not as a loss but as a gift of grace that allows for the fashioning of a new form of life.
As I reflected on the combination of decline and opportunity that accompanies old age, the thought came to me that my aging can be viewed as one thread of a double helix in which the spiral thread of my life is intertwined with that of my church. Like me, the church in which I grew up and from which I received my education has entered a period of decline, even stripping, in which its social position is eroding, its institutions are collapsing, and its common life lies in tatters. I will not spend a lot of time and effort defending this assessment. I will say only that its membership is both aging and dwindling, its parishes are under financial strain, some of its seminaries are closing, and others are near collapse. Meanwhile, its governing bodies, particularly its House of Bishops, are dysfunctional, and its position in the Anglican Communion is one that divides rather than unites.
One can view these problems as socially contingent and organizational — the byproducts of social and demographic change. In response, one can seek more effective marketing strategies and organizational restructuring designed to reverse decline. One can turn to the consumption arts that now define our social space and the management techniques that govern our schools and businesses to address the problem. These strategies may or may not have positive effects on institutional strength, but they will not address the real problem.
As my friend Ephraim Radner insists, we do not face a social or technical problem. We face God, who is stripping us of our social strengths so as to reform us as a more obedient people. This is the way in which Holy Scripture would have us view ourselves — through figures like that of a vine being pruned or a people being held in the wilderness outside the Promised Land.
Just as I cannot deny my decline and stripping, just as both carry a promise of new life, so I cannot deny the same reality within the life of my church. Both are growing old. Both are being addressed with a promise. I do not wish to argue this point. For the moment I will simply let things stand as I have stated them and ask a good biblical question: “What then shall we do?”
This is the question God addresses to us. The answer Peter delivers is God’s word: “Repent … and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is to you and to your children and to all that are far off” (Acts 2:38-39). The other side of repentance is the Holy Spirit and the promise, even to us who are far off. If indeed we recognize that it is God who is stripping us and not bare circumstance, repentance is possible and the promise of God that lies on the other side of this turning is open for us. I will not recount what our repentance will require. We have to learn that, and we will if we recognize that our distress is from God. Of one thing I am certain: the promise that lies on the other side of turning is new life.
Repentance excludes other offers on the table. For instance, we will not enter the promise of God under the banner of a charismatic leader, a magnetic personality. It will be our temptation to look for help from a celebrity. Celebrities are the opiate of our age, but a secular prophet, Paul Simon, has reminded us that “every generation throws a hero off the pop charts.”
Where then will we find green leaves among withered grass? I am convinced that small communities will begin to emerge. These small bodies will begin by remembering the rock from which they were hewn. Their focus will not be on how to market what they have to offer. They will assiduously eschew the consumption arts. They will rather remember their origin in God’s call and long history with his people. In remembering, they will come again to know who God has revealed himself to be. They will remember also how it is that God wills them to live one with another. Their community will be one in which they learn the simple graces that identify them as “imitators of God as beloved children who walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up” (Eph. 5:1-2)
As imitators of God, they will learn also that the love of Christ that gives itself up has a form that looks like God’s. We have seen this form in Christ who loved us. If we changed, others would see it reflected in our life together. There are many summaries of its contours but my favorite is in Ephesians 4. The characteristics are easy to list but difficult to acquire. They are humility or openness to instruction, gentleness toward others, patient endurance in the midst of difficulty, bearing with others out of love for them, and (most of all) eagerness to maintain unity in the bond of peace. To these must be added speaking the truth with one’s neighbor along with kindness, tenderheartedness, forgiveness (Eph. 4:25), and an active concern for the poor, the weak, and the outcast. The imitation of God that defines the common life of these communities for which we wait in hope always moves out from its inner life to the forgotten parts of God’s world. These communities do not act in this way as a simple attempt to do good or prove their virtue. Rather, they act in this way as the necessary expression of an inner nature that defines their existence as a community formed in Christ.
The turning that carries the promise of new life will, therefore, appear in small communities. Only here will people learn a new form of life. In considering this form, I have come to realize that it is the very one I have been called to learn in this new era of my life. This task marks the final period of my earthly existence. I too must learn to be open to instruction. I too must learn gentleness and patient endurance. I too must learn to bear with others, and I too must learn eagerness for unity, truthfulness, kindness, tenderheartedness, and forgiveness. I too must go to those who live in the shadows of our society. As I ponder what I have done with my life, I realize that the imitation of God that defines the common life of these communities defines the challenge and the promise of this my period of old age.
I pray for the appearance of these communities. Individuals can’t learn these things on their own. We must learn these things from others within the body of Christ.
Thanks be to God! The appearance of these communities is no idle hope. We may be certain that they will appear because we need them, and God has promised not to desert his Church. We may be certain that God will provide beacons that lead us on through dark times. Promise is always present in the midst of God’s stripping of his church. Promises carry commitments about the future, but we, the recipients of these promises, are waiting in a very difficult present. We are members of the churches God is stripping.
What is it to wait for God with faith, hope, and love when the forms of one’s life are being stripped away? For many it has meant leaving the Episcopal Church and forming an Anglican alternative. For others it has meant changing denominations. These decisions are understandable and no cause for derision, but for two reasons they are not steps I have felt free to take. In the first instance, it seems to me that I have been involved in the very defection that has aroused God’s ire, and I do not feel free to remove myself from his judgment, any more than I can remove myself from the judgment under which my long life, with its settled infidelities, has placed me. I believe I must live through the pain of the stripping and trust Christ’s promise to be with us until the close of the age. In the second instance, I remain convinced that leaving does not reflect Jesus’ faithfulness to Israel. Despite its defection, despite its rejection of him and his Father, it seems that he never thought of starting another Israel or lining up with some party within it.
No, I believe I must wait upon God as he strips his Church. Here the thread of my life becomes a thread of a double helix that moves in rhythm with the course of the life of the Church. What I must learn is what the Church must learn. Both of us are called to wait in faith and hope for communal exemplars that God will use to show us the way of patient and virtuous abiding. We all wait within the very structures and institutions that are being stripped. It is within these crumbling walls, as within my crumbling body, that we are called to start living a different way. That way does not include administrative and programmatic magic, the consumption arts behind popularity and prosperity, and all the titillation of desires that run the engine of America’s businesses, medical economy, and churches. All these will fail. The way ahead will neither be to imitate these schemes and programs nor to rail against them. The way ahead will be, within the very institutions that are in such divinely wrought decline, to become different people altogether, “imitators of God as beloved children.”
We have no way of knowing what precisely such imitation will lead us into. That will become plain enough as the stripping goes on. What we do know is what God always requires of beloved children. Scripture has made this plain.
And it is to the graces of God’s children that the final period of my life beckons me. These are the very graces God longs to give his Church. These are the qualities that will allow me to stand with younger generations, not as a person whose time has past but as a brother who shares in a common struggle and shares a common hope. These are the very qualities that will define the common life of small communities for which we wait and hope — communities that serve as beacons to all of us and sources of hope in what will prove a long and difficult passage through God’s gracious and salvific stripping of all of us.
The Rev. Philip Turner (PhD, Princeton University) is an Episcopal priest and the author or editor of several books, including Christian Ethics and the Church(Baker, 2015). Now retired, he previously served as professor of Christian ethics at the General Theological Seminary and as dean of Berkeley Divinity School at Yale University. More recently, he served as interim dean and president of Seminary of the Southwest and interim rector at Church of the Incarnation in Dallas.