AS TIME GOES BY
Dear desert inhabitants, and particularly those who, like the king and I and some of you, didn’t manage to get into the oasis,
Last month I promised to say a bit about the problems incurred by reaching an age when I can sense young people restraining their curiosity about what could possibly make it worthwhile for me to get up in the morning.
In this connection, I remember being on a bus many years ago when I was a rosy-cheeked young man of fifty. There were only two other people travelling on this solid lump of late twentieth century public transport. They were on the double seat facing me. One was a rather sulky looking, solid lump of a youth who I judged to be nineteen or twenty years old. Squashed in next to him was an attractive girl of about the same age. She was clearly with the youth in a specifically geographical sense, but the hunted expression in her eyes, and a succession of what looked like escape rehearsal twitches in her body suggested that, at the very least, she was contemplating the joy of being without him.
After a few minutes of slumped silence the youth must have decided that the time had come to favour the other occupant of his small world with a shaft of Wildean wit. He raised his head.
‘If I wuz to wake up tomorrer,’ he said, with a sort of lugubrious intensity, ‘and found I was fifty, joo know wot I’d do?’
She pushed her hair away from her face, and her face away from his as she replied dispassionately.
‘No, I don’t. What would you do?’
‘I’d top myself.’
The girl turned to stare at him. I could see a new, more animated look on her face. It was an expression of yearning. I think I knew what she was thinking. I think I knew what she would have loved to say.
‘I wish you were fifty.’
I empathised with her, and, of course I did have some sympathy with that young man’s perspective. I might not have expressed my opinion as bluntly in a public place in the hearing of someone who showed all the signs of having already toppled into the hellish abyss of fifty-year-old hopelessness and despair, but I do recall having a very agnostic attitude to any possible quality of life after the age of seventy. Now that I am edging towards my seventy-first birthday I am finding much to enjoy, thank you very much. And to those who clearly believe that most problems encountered by the elderly can be solved with a cup of tea, and just about all of them with the addition of a biscuit, let me say firmly that this is not the case. Tea is one of God’s greatest and most enduring creations, and he did quite well with biscuits, but Bridget and I have always loved those things. Over the years, tea has saved our sanity and almost our lives on a number of occasions. Okay, gin and tonic in proper glasses with slices of lemon and lime, or Lagavulin whisky entirely on its own might do the trick, but those who, often with good intentions, become a little patronising towards us mature specimens, are unlikely to start sloshing that sort of stuff around just to keep us socially sedated.
One thing that is bound to happen as we reach this age is the relatively frequent death of contemporaries, and, rather more alarmingly, friends, family and people in the news who are several years younger than us. Embracing the absolute inevitability of death is a strange business, an anticipated but slow-motion steam-powered shock that suddenly comes rolling into the terminus. I don’t like it. Some claim to be unmoved by the prospect of death. I am not. I do not wish to die. I wish to remain alive.
Once or twice in my life friends who are not Christians have made comments like this.
‘Of course, you Christians won’t have any problem about dying, will you? You’re just looking forward to moving on into glory or heaven, or whatever you call it.’
One person who expressed this view was frankly sceptical when I pointed out that, by the time he was in Gethsemane, Jesus was clearly dreading the ghastly events that were still to come. In fact, he said, ‘My grief is so great that it almost crushes me.’ He also asked, if it was possible, to be allowed to back out of the whole crucifixion nightmare. If anyone should have been able to picture the ‘glory’ it was him. My friend was puzzled. He said that he knew the Bible well and remembered none of this. He would go and check it out. I still don’t know if he did or not.
Chesterton was right. A surprising number of believers and most unbelievers find it almost impossible to get their heads round one statement that sounds simple but is eternally not.
‘He became man.’
Jesus the man knew all the weaknesses and strengths and joys and tragedies of being a real man. In a way that is in most respects inexplicable to us, he also knew exactly the same features of being the real God who was inhabiting the real man.
Clear as mud, eh? But that’s where it’s at. And that’s why he was conflicted. And that’s why we are as well. We inherit the burden and the blessing. As a very limited man I can’t imagine how I would ever face past, present or future without the Spirit that’s in me. I’m profoundly interested in heaven, whatever that turns out to be, as long as it doesn’t involve singing Shine Jesus Shine for the next ten million years. At the same time, I love this world and my life, and I want to hang on to it for as long as is humanly (or spiritually) possible.
Something like that.
Here’s a poem I wrote years ago, when I was asking myself how the man / God combination worked itself out in the consciousness of the human being called Jesus.
It’s called What of me?
Yes, he will rise again
But what of me?
Though death flaps down to take me like a huge black bird
Casting ragged shadows over lilies of the valley
Over milky moonlit seas
Peach and pearl in Galilean skies
The coolness of a woman’s hand
The rasp of rough-grained wood against the skin
Light in the gaze of men, who, by a miracle of faith, have seen
Heard, walked, talked
Discovered that their pitted skin is whole and clean
Sabbath walks, meandering through rolling fields of wheat
The chattering and chuckling of my friends
Their sweet naivety
A scent of cooking fish
The call to eat
Old stories by the fire
Love and wisdom in my mother’s smile
The tears of those who loved me much
Because I gently, fiercely took away their sin
And will I rise again?
Indeed, the son of man must rise and live once more
But what of me?
What of me?
One final silly thing. There’s nothing funny about serious loss of memory as we get older. Bridget’s dad, and therefore her mum as a result, of course, suffered from the onset of severe dementia in his final years. Bridget and I are not yet afflicted in that way, but we do have the most ridiculous conversations several times each week that follow a tortuously twisting trail of failed memory as we move towards the point where we can’t recall what we were trying to call to mind in the first place. We thought we’d like to give you a flavour of these time-wasting verbal excursions, so here is one.
I DON’T REMEMBER IT THAT WELL
A: Who were you talking to on the phone earlier?
B: Oh, it was - oh, no! The name’s gone! The girl from - you know - that place. The place. The place. The place before - wherever it was.
A: You mean the place before Bromley?
B: No, no! The place before that. Where we had the - you know - where we had to put up with all the…
A: Oooh!! You mean the girl who looks like - who’s the woman we liked and then we didn’t because she - oh, what did she do? She did something. It was in all the papers. You must remember. She was on that programme.
B: Which programme?
A: Oh, come on! You know - the programme. The programme with the bit at the beginning set in - where was it? Not Blackpool. The other one.
B: Oh, yes! The place where we stopped off that wet afternoon to watch - oh, for goodness sake! The film with that bloke - tall, something wrong with his left leg. You always thought he looked exactly like the manager of - aaaah!
A: No, hold on, you’re thinking of - thingy.
A: Friend of your dad’s. Old friend of your dad’s. Drove a - you know - great big whatsit - great big thing.
B: Ah! Lived in - hold on a minute. Two streets away from yours - big wide road with -
A: Yes! King - King something Street - same name as your old friend’s brother’s solicitor. Come on! You know who I’m talking about! Thin, serious, got a - thing on his face. Never wanted to eat on Mondays. N-o-o-o, it’s gone.
B: Who were you talking to on the phone just now?
A: What? Oh, I haven’t got the faintest idea.
At least we’re moving at about the same speed. That’s something. On a lighter note, next month I want to talk about the gates of hell. That’ll be fun, won’t it? Don’t give up, will you? Someone’s got to read these !”£$%^&&( letters.
Lots of love and laughter,