The last three weeks, although a bit windy, have been beautiful bike riding weather here in Rhode Island, timed perfectly for the end of the academic year, moving into summer, and the beginning of the fourth sabbatical of my career. I’ve been on my bike every day but two of the last twenty, riding between 10 and 25 miles per day. Jeanne has joined me on a couple of weekends to ride on some of the beautiful trails our state has to offer.
As we were taking a ten-minute break while riding along the Blackstone River last Saturday, a gentleman who was with a pack of bikers also taking a breather at the rest area offered to take a picture of Jeanne and me with the river in the background. I thought the picture turned out great and posted it on Facebook. When Jeanne saw it, she said “We both look really old!” To which I replied, “We are old!” Comparatively speaking, that is. Sixty-plus years of life tend to leave a mark on a person.
When I walked out of the Amica Mutual Pavilion (the AMP) two Sundays ago after the conclusion of the college’s 105th commencement exercises, I thought to myself “I am now officially on sabbatical.” That’s not technically true; my Fall semester sabbatical begins with the start of fall classes the last week of August. But I won’t be back in the classroom until the day after MLK day next January, so for all intents and purposes I am on sabbatical.
My first and third sabbaticals each produced a book; my second sabbatical changed my life in ways that, among others, include both this blog and two more books. What might my fourth sabbatical have in store? This very well might be my last one. I have often said that I will die in the classroom—and I very well may—but by the time another sabbatical rolls around, I’ll be in my mid-seventies. Both of my parents and two of my four grandparents were dead before they reached the age that I’ll be when I’m eligible for another sabbatical.
Perhaps you sense a theme being developed here. If I live to be 100 (unlikely), as of my birthday last March I have lived 2/3 of my life. The math proficient among you will be able to calculate exactly how old I am. This sabbatical is a gateway into the next and final 1/3. I’m not afraid of death, but I am interested in using the coming weeks and months to frame what is to come—professionally, personally, physically, and spiritually. As always, I’ll be using this blog as a primary vehicle for exploration and experimentation.
I’ve mentioned in previous posts that two of the later verses in Isaac Watts’ hymn O God, Our Help In Ages Past have become more and more meaningful to me as my years accumulate.
A thousand ages in thy sight
Are like an evening gone,
Short as the watch that ends the night
Before the rising sun.
Time, like an ever-rolling stream,
Bears all our years away;
They fly forgotten, as a dream
Dies at the opening day.
Watts’ hymn is a setting of Psalm 90, a powerful text in the Jewish scriptures that establishes unflinchingly a truth that most of us would just as soon ignore. We are all going to die. In addition to reminding us of our mortality, the Psalmist develops another inescapable truth: God is God, and you’re not. God is eternal, and you’re not. No punches are pulled. Verses 5 and 6: “You sweep us away like a dream; we fade away suddenly like the grass. In the morning it is green and flourishes; in the evening it is dried up and withered.” Verse 10: “The span of our life is seventy years, perhaps in strength even eighty; yet the sum of them is but labor and sorrow, for they pass away quickly and we are gone.”
Although Isaac Watts’ setting of Psalm 90 asks God to be “our shelter from the stormy blast, and our eternal home,” the psalm itself says nothing about eternal life or bliss in heaven. That’s a New Testament concept. And to be honest, I’m not attracted to the idea that this life is just practice for eternity, even though that often seemed to be the only reason to be a Christian in my youth.
Perhaps I’m too influenced by the existentialists—I want to live my life at least trying to stay conscious of being a short-term creature. And Psalm 90 ends with the proper daily attitudinal focus, with just a hint of wishful thinking thrown in:
In the morning, fill us with your love.
We shall exult and rejoice all our days.
Give us joy to balance our affliction,
For the years when we knew misfortune.
Show forth your work in your servants,
Let your glory shine on their children.
May the graciousness of the Lord our God be upon us;
Prosper the work of our hands,
Prosper our handiwork.
That’s a great starting point for a sabbatical.
One of my favorite podcasts is Kate Bowler’s “Everything Happens.” She ends each episode with a blessing that focuses on the topic that has been under discussion with a guest during the previous forty-five minutes. At the end of an episode centered on the glories of aging, she offered this blessing, which I’m sure I’ll return to frequently in the coming weeks and months.
Blessed are you who have reached a new age. Even if it doesn’t seem to fit. It may feel too big. Too reductive. Too limiting. It may be marked by a life you barely recognize. The kids who have all moved out or settled somewhere far away.
Wasn’t I just young a second ago? Will I ever recognize the person staring back in the mirror? What’s left to do that really counts? And how do I know if I am or ever was … enough? God give us eyes to notice the ways that life can still be beautiful and rich and full in the midst of so much that has been lost. Remind us that you are not done with us yet. For the God who spoke us into being calls us even now. Not to an ideal or role, but to a moment. This one. In a world that equates age with liability, it’s time for a reminder that you are a gift.