The Annual Meeting was well-attended – the budget was discussed and passed, and the Mission Statement was approved. I made the following statement:
I’d like to make a personal statement about my tenure as your senior minister, but before doing so I have two brief readings to give focus to what I want to say. The first is from Thoreau’s classic Walden. In the second paragraph Thoreau says:
“I should not obtrube my affiars so much on the notice of my readers if very particular inquiries had not been made by my townsmen concerning my mode of life, which some would call impertinent, though they do not appear to me at all impertinent, but considering the circumstances, very natural and pertinent.”
The second reading is a poem by Jane Kenyon written while she was struggling with a terminal illness, which she titled, Otherwise:
I got out of bed
on two strong legs.
It might have been
otherwise. I ate
milk, ripe, flawless
peach. It might
have been otherwise.
I took the dog uphill
to the birch wood.
All morning I did
the work I love.
At noon I lay down
with my mate. It might
have been otherwise.
We ate dinner together
at a table with silver
candlesticks. It might
have been otherwise.
I slept in a bed
in a room with paintings
on the walls, and
planned another day
just like this day.
But one day, I know,
it will be otherwise.
I conducted two services this morning – it might have been otherwise. I got into the pulpit and delivered two sermons, similar but not identical since the second had the benefit of two more hours of living – it might have been otherwise. I know that sometime in the not-too-distance, but not-yet-seeable future, it will be otherwise.
Like Thoreau, ‘I would not obtrube my affairs on you if very particular inquiries have not been made about my plans.’ You deserve to hear directly from me that I do not have a definite time-specific plan for my retirement, except to acknowledge that, yes, the birthdays have a part to play in such a decision, and, yes, I’m aware that the Parkinson’s makes folks wonder…and the 25th anniversary of my tenure here adds to the question mark.
So it’s natural that inquiries have been made. How could it be otherwise?
I do not choose to set a date for my retirement now, but I certainly will do so when health or a combination of circumstances requires it.
Since my diagnosis with Parkinson’s two years ago my life has taken on a renewed kind of intensity – an intensity about life in general and about my work in particular.
Last month my neurologist assured me that it will be some years before the Parkinson’s might interfere with my work. You may recall that when he gave me the diagnosis two years ago, I said to him (since he had been president of his synagogue), “So, your rabbi comes to you and says he has Parkinson’s, what do you tell him?”
He responded, “I’d say ‘tell me when you can’t do your work.’”
I say, “How long do you think that will be?”
In his Jewish tradition he answers my question with another question: “So how long would you like it to be.”
“About five years,” I said.
“That should not be a problem. Now let’s talk about decisions you need to make about treatment.”
I choose to continue my work for the foreseeable future; I’m feeling fine, I’m still learning I’m still enthused and challenged by my work, and I believe our congregation is in good shape and getting even better.
At the same time, I understand the discomfort that the uncertainty of a specific date causes to some, but one of the basic lessons of life is learning to live with uncertainty; and we are living in particularly uncertain times; we’ve been living with an uncertain economy, we’ve been living with wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and we see that those uncertainties are upsetting and polarizing our political system.
When the time comes, I assure you that I’ll make a dignified exit, and between now and that uncertain date I’ll do all I can to be sure the congregation will also make a smooth transition.
In closing I’m reminded of Carl Sandburg’s aphorism: “Nothing more certain than death, nothing more uncertain than the hour.”
I accept the certainty of mortality and I’m glad of the uncertainty of the hour. For now, however, “We have promises to keep and miles to go…”