Mike is a retired school counselor in his mid 70s. We know him best as the grandpa of the kids next door. He’s over regularly to live-trap and “relocate” pesky chipmunks, sweep up the acorns from the yard’s stately oaks and otherwise do those tasks full-time parents don’t have time to do.
Mike likes to talk. Man, does he like to talk! Fortunately, the Englishman who came to Minnesota to get his PhD, fell in love and stayed. He’s bright, knowledgeable and curious about many things. Recently, Mike was telling me about his decision to resume more regular church attendance.
Mulling over eternal verities or ultimate questions about meaning and purpose was conspicuously absent in Mike’s priorities. What was most striking were not questions about death or an after-life. Rather, Mike was primarily focused on quality of life now! He explained how social engagement and sense of community are essential for maintaining mental health and physical vitality well into our senior years.
Such nuggets of wisdom from elders I would want to emulate get noticed by 65 year-olds like me. Same way with my 85 y/o bother-in-law, Al. He’s always been popular in our family. Now six years into their seconds marriages, he and Elaine are modeling for the rest of us what its like to age with grace, gratitude and charm.
This past week I took a sour cream raisin pie over to share with them. A longstanding claim in our family is that Mom’s double-crust recipe is far superior to any meringue version others may tout! After our self-congratulatory remarks (and second helpings) we engaged in easy, wide-ranging conversation as we always do.
What I noticed throughout Al’s animated story-telling was more than a sugar-high from dessert. He was engaged, grateful and enthusiastic as ever. This time he kept apologizing for going off on tangents. Every story had about five subplots and as many asides. But his were not the untethered wanderings of a feeble mind. They were exuberant reminiscences of people, places and times we shared in common. A perfect accompaniment to my mother’s double-crust sour cream raisin pie.
Not all our stories are easy or happy. My sister died in 2007. Now Al and his wife talk openly and lovingly about their first marriages. Though family circumstances prevented him from graduating from high school, Al remains as curious, wise and insightful as any philosophy professor I had in college. Twenty years his junior, I have always aspired to be like Al — now more than ever!
These disparate conversations with Mike and Al suddenly converged yesterday as I drove east on 50th Street. On the marquee of the largest Lutheran congregation in the world these words foretold this weekend’s sermon: “Some Assembly Required.” Immediately I chuckled at the clever play on words.
My conversations with Mike and Al suddenly struck me as profound as any sermon a pastor will be preaching at Mount Olivet. Life — and I would hold the spiritual life — is not like putting together a swing set or gas grill. As useful as the owner’s manual is for putting things in place and for their upkeep, such instructions are woefully inadequate for conveying the function and purpose enjoyed in life’s many conveniences — and dare I say, coping with life’s inevitable annoyances.
Yes, some assembly is required. Yet a full life, a purpose-filled life, a life the likes of which Mike and Al model for the rest of us demands more from us. We are nudged and enticed to move beyond the verb, “to assemble” according to the prescriptions of even the best user’s manual. We are invited, even wired, to engage assembly as the noun it is, as community — that full, rich, diverse assortment of characters that make us who we are.
Yes, some assembly is required. Here we carry the stories that enrich and define us, the memories we treasure, the tales that will one day be told about us. In the gathered assembly we reverently hold what’s most valuable and sacred — communion with one another.