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On Turning 50 at Easter: If Not an Affair or a Harley, What?

April 12, 2010

The disciples encounter the risen Lord

“’But we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel. And what is more, it is the third day since all this took place’ … Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him, and he disappeared from their sight”  — Luke 24:13-33

About two months ago when I realized that I was turning 50 on Easter Sunday, I felt I had to pay special attention.  So last week I spent a day away at a place of prayer, listening to what Easter might say to me.

I woke up prickly and unsettled the first morning.  A difficulty weighing on my mind had put me in a place of darkness and uncertainty.

Then there are “certain changes” to accept in turning 50.  My favorite new TV show is Men of a Certain Age, stories of three 50-something friends in southern California – unfamiliar aches and pains in body and life, changing sleep patterns, trying to balance work, friendship, and family.  Gradually realizing you are pushing books further and further away to see the text, and buying reading glasses for the first time.  Thinking you’d be at one point after all these years and finding yourself at another, and not sure what to make of it.

Finally there was the irritating pollen dust blanketing the retreat center.  It happens every year here in North Carolina, but never like this.  Clouds of it visibly exploded, drifted off pine trees, and swept like a haze across the lawn.  My sandaled feet turned yellow as I walked the grounds.

How can I see the risen Lord in this darkness, this dust, this changing body groaning for a place of new life?

I thought of the friend who told his wife upon turning fifty, “Okay, I’m notifying you now. I’m going to have a mid-life crisis.  So either I have an affair or I get a Harley.  Which do you prefer?”  He was joking of course.  But he did end up with the Harley.

“We had hoped that he was the one,” reports Luke.  We had hoped that Jesus would be the one to bring this or that to pass.  We had hoped new life would be what we expected and wanted.  We are tempted to seize the future we desire if we don’t sense it present or coming.  I certainly had hoped that turning 50 during Holy Week would not be the darkness now weighing on me.

Gradually, as I listened to the fifty years, I was taken to a different place.

My parents, I remembered, had hoped for a stable and secure life in Niagara Falls, New York.  But in 1966 their restlessness led them to a leap into the unknown to befriend a strange people in South Korea, gifting me with an unexpected identity:  twelve years growing up formed as a minority into a “third culture kid,” both constantly at home and homeless wherever I find myself.

Harrison Ford and Harley: a new me at mid-life?

I had hoped from college in Vermont that law school and politics and being in the headlines would be my path to change the world.  Then plunging into the unknown of a black neighborhood in Mississippi, for six months I thought.  After two exhilarating years in the ‘hood, leaving Middlebury behind for good, I regretted the decision in a 1983 summer of darkness when blacks in our church confronted whites about our privilege.  Out of intense conflict, it took time and a certain determined waiting for new life to unfold.  But at some point we recognized the risen Jesus was there in our midst, and the gift of new life altered all of us at the very core.

After 17 years in Jackson, my wife Donna and I had hoped to stay much longer.  Then the unexpected death of a close friend, hearing the gentle voice of God say “I am moving you on, trust me,” and the painful loss of leaving Mississippi and the greatest joys and friendships we had experienced on this earth for the unknown.  I found myself back in Vermont of all places.  It took time for new life to unfold there too.  A time of intense grieving, yet profound and unfamiliar gifts:  Sabbath.  Renewal.  Learning the names of birds after so many years of learning the ways of social activism.  Falling in love with Donna all over again.  Knowing my children deeply.  Them living near their grandparents.

We had hoped to move to Boston from Vermont.  Then the unexpected voice of a mentor:  “You need to go to Duke Divinity School.  I have friends there who will take care of you.”  And these ten surprising years here – times of uncertainty but above all trust and, eventually, the birth of a rich new vision and life and place of service, and a place to bring the fragments of my life to a synthesis.

Korea.  Mississippi.  Vermont.  Durham.  Each beginning with a leap from the known into the unknown.  Each marked by times of profound uncertainty, pain, and darkness.  Each, gradually, a place of profound new growth and insight and, yes, resurrection.  Each growing deeper trust that the risen Lord is the central actor in the story.

But we only know this by paying attention and being open to surprise and interruption.  “We had hoped he was the one.”  The new life that God offers us is not the life we are looking for or expect.  No, it is far better.  Yet it takes time to recognize and receive the risen Jesus into our lives.  It takes time for resurrection to unfold.  “And what is more, it is the third day since all this took place.”  It takes time to know what resurrection looks like.  And then times of haziness come and we must live by the memory of resurrections out of past sufferings, in trust, by faith and not by sight. “Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him, and he disappeared from their sight.”

Writes Madeleine L’Engle in Walking On Water, quoting an atomic physicist:

“Man [sic] is a creature who depends entirely on revelation … he should always listen, always be intent to hear and see. He should not strive to superimpose the structures of his own mind, his own systems of thought upon reality…. At the beginning of all spiritual endeavor stands humility, and he who loses it can achieve no other heights than the heights of disillusionment.”

I began in disillusionment and darkness, but ended in a place of profound wonder.  It took time to see the risen Lord amidst the yellow haze.  It took time to remember that in the “present darkness” of each chapter, Jesus has always revealed himself beyond what I could have asked or imagined.  It is liberating to believe anew, to live as if the risen Jesus is also present now, working wonders and revelations yet to behold.  The future can remain a mystery.   In the meantime may I claim each day with a certain madness, a different spirit and logic.  In Wendell Berry’s words, to “practice resurrection,” to “every day do something that won’t compute.”

With new aches and pains, uncertainties and haziness – with an increased sense of limitation– it is time, once again, to dare to expect revelation.  It is time to trust God for the next chapter of wonder and to live as if the risen Jesus is right here in our midst.  For this is what it means to practice resurrection.

About the Author: Chris Rice is co-director of the Center for Reconciliation at Duke Divinity School.  He is author of Reconciling All Things, Grace Matters, and More Than Equals. His writes regularly at the blog Reconcilers with Chris Rice.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. April 12, 2010 8:20 am

    Very thoughtful words, Chris. I appreciate your commitment and willingness to constantly be reinvented and redeployed by God. That kind of nimbleness is difficult and admirable.

  2. Art Stanley permalink
    April 12, 2010 2:22 pm

    Chris: You may recall that our daughter Kathleen (your classmate at Seoul Foreign School) was born in the same hospital in Pittsburgh as you were just a week later. Your father and I graduated from Seminary the same year. We are preparing to celebrate HER 50th birthday this coming Saturday, so join in celebrating yours as well. It has been our privilege as the “older generation” to watch your continuing development over the years and we are enriched by your shared challenges and insights. Please keep the “revelations” flowing! With thanksgiving for your ministry, REV. ART STANLEY

  3. Reggie permalink
    April 14, 2010 9:18 am

    Chris, it only gets better at 50, how do I know. You betcha!!!! Yes, the conductor leads and guides in ways we love and ways we don’t like. Yet, there’s something special about 50 . . . I told my friends “I think I finally know what I’m doing!” With the surprise aches/pains, there comes an assurance that . . . we’re getting there . . . where we always wanted to be and didn’t know it. Doing the thing that was hid deep inside of us that we had no idea how it was going to be accomplished and serving the multitude in way we could never guess. Yes, there is something dear and clear about 50 . . . you’re half way kid!!!!!!!!

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