Eternal Youth and the Aged Superman

Alexander the Great, arkansas, art, change, Faith, Family, Healing, Health, inspiration, Meditation, Ministry, purpose, renewal, Retirement, Spirituality, Strength, Superman
DeLee, Memories of a Certain Springtime, mixed Media, 2021

Springtime is the season of youth, growth, and promise. It’s full of hope and anticipation for the future. It’s the season of our youth, for we identify with the vigor of nature’s growing and fertile surroundings. Winter isn’t the season for most of us, for it’s cold, dark, and the world is buried under ice, snow, or an interminable rain. It reminds us of our own mortality, our own aging and weakness, and our lack of power over our circumstances. No wonder people have searched for the fountain of eternal youth in many cultures across the ages.

As a pastor, I know people die in every season of the year, but somehow the deaths in winter seemed to strike me as more difficult to deal with than those of summer. In recent years, U.S. death rates in winter months have been 8 to 12 percent higher than in non-winter months. Much of this increase relates to seasonal changes in behavior and the human body, as well as our increased exposure to seasonal respiratory diseases. Cold temperatures exacerbate preexisting diseases, plus this weather brings on strenuous activities we don’t do at any other time of the year. Some people work outside all year round, so they’re always subjected to extreme weather conditions. I’m not sure which is worse: extreme heat or extreme cold. I’ve always used the premise, “We can always put on more clothes; taking them off is risky business.”

Drinking from the Water Hose

Of course, summer heat now is more extreme than it used to be. The dinosaurs among us keep saying, “When I was a kid, we played outside all day long and drank from the garden hose. We came inside for lunch, rested during the hottest part of the afternoon, and went back outside to play until it was almost sunset. Then we had a late, light supper, took our baths, and we were in bed by the time the stars came out.”

Weather records back from 1954 tell a different story. It was actually so hot, the extreme heat caused a Kansas City weather beacon to malfunction and forecast snow (St. Louis Post Dispatch, 12 July 1954). The Dinosaurs’ memories of their childhoods aren’t fossilized in stone. They remember what they want to remember. Most of us forget the difficult times and remember the times of joy instead. I remember this era as so hot and humid, my daddy would stand in the back yard with the water hose on full blast as he cooled down the west facing brick wall of our house. The overflow water nurtured the orange day lilies in the flowerbeds below.

I think some of our Dinosaur generation’s memories might have moderated over the years, just as the extremes of any pain—childbirth, war, or cultural changes—have been moderated by the joys of survival and bringing a new generation to adulthood. Also, we tend to remember the better parts of our lives if we have an optimistic outlook.

I wasn’t around for the “The Great Heat Wave of 1936,” which affected around 15 states during its three-week run that brought temperatures above 100 degrees. During the summer of 1936, The United States endured its worst heat wave on record. Ozark, Arkansas exceeded 100F every day from August 3 – 23 and reached a chart topping record 120 degrees Fahrenheit.

Also known as the “1936 North American Heat Wave,” it exacerbated the levels of human suffering during the ongoing Great Depression. During this time, the all-time highest temperature in Arkansas was 120° F (Ozark on Aug.10, 1936). For comparison, in 2010 Little Rock, Arkansas had to endure its hottest summer between June and August when the temperature went above 90 degrees for two months. The Western states, currently under a mega drought that’s the worst the area has seen since 800 AD, hope to see rain and cooler temperatures soon.

Once upon a springtime

It’s not just the weather I connect with the cycles of life, but also the changes in my body. Gone are the days when I could stay up all night talking or frolicking and then go to work without missing a beat. Of course, I was once an energizer bunny, or maybe I didn’t get all that much done when I was “working.” It was a mark of hubris for me that I could still work, no matter how foolish I was the night before. My friends and I thought of ourselves as heroic.

Arthur C. Clarke speaks of youthful infatuation with heroes, who in their minds should benefit from the eternal bloom of everlasting youth. Age and decrepitude shouldn’t affect heroes, for they’re either blessed by god or nature has given them have supernatural bodies. As Clarke describes the movie star walking on the low gravity space dock in his science fiction novel Islands in the Sky,

“Tex Duncan followed close behind. He was trying to manage without an escort and not succeeding very well. He was a good deal older than I’d guessed from his films, probably at least thirty-five. And you could see through his hair in any direction you cared to look. I glanced at Norman, wondering how he’d reacted to the appearance of his hero. He looked just a shade disappointed.”

George Blanda, the oldest football player and record holder

Young folks think 35 is ancient. They never met George Blanda, the oldest NFL quarterback. Blanda played for 26 NFL seasons, the most seasons played by a single player in NFL history. During that time, he broke numerous other records as well. He held the record of most pass attempts in a single game, 68, until Drew Bledsoe broke his record in 1994 with 70 attempts. Blanda also was the first player to score more than 2,000 points, and he’s one of only two players to play in four different decades before he retired at age 48, one month shy of his 49th birthday.

Tom Brady, age 45, is the oldest quarterback to ever start an NFL game, but to break George Blanda’s age record for playing, Brady would have to play for four more seasons to break the age record and play until age 50 to break Blanda’s record of 26 seasons. Brady also has yet to throw seven touchdown passes in one game, a record Blanda and seven other NFL quarterbacks hold.

My old daddy often watched in agony while many young quarterback desperately tried to move a team downfield until the coach sent in Blanda, who somehow snatched victory from the jaws of defeat.

“Finally!” he’d shout at the tv. “How ‘bout that old man?” he’d exclaim to the rest of us. Agonizing over a football game was a family affair.

Tired Superman

We humored my daddy, who was just past his mid century mark. As young and vigorous twenty something’s, we kids knew mortality’s chill breath was on his neck, while we were still able to outrun any shade creeping up on us in the night. As young people, we were still at the age when we began to see our parents less as heroes, and more as the flesh and blood realities of their true selves.

Not everyone survives this transition gracefully. Some need to see their parents as “forever heroes,” and are disappointed when the folks don’t measure up to this lofty standard. Likewise, we can transfer these same “forever hero” desires to God, and want God to be our superhero to rescue us from dangers and keep us from harm. We don’t take responsibility for our own lives, but wait for the external power to fix our lives in a dramatic way. We’re forever dependent on the superpower for every thing good.

Johann Baptist Hagenauer: Christ at the Column, ca. 1754–56 , Alabaster, polychromed and gilded

There came a time in my daddy’s life when Parkinson’s disease and dementia weakened both his body and his mind. This wasn’t all at once, but a slow progression. He once had a strong handwriting, firm and legible. As his fine motor skill diminished, this beautiful signature became cramped and small, but it had the same stroke pattern as his original. My mom would fuss when he could no longer open jar lids for her, but I reminded her, “He wants to do this for you, but his hands can’t manage it. It’s a case of the spirit is willing and the flesh is weak.”

She wasn’t used to hearing this verse quoted in this context. I did get her piercing look, like I’d stabbed her to the heart, but she stopped fussing at him for what he couldn’t do and began to enjoy what he could still do. She too had always thought of him as a Superman type because he’d always been there for her. She now understood she would have to be there for him as he began to lose his powers.

“Kryptonite“

We all have our own personal kryptonite, the mineral from our home planet that can drain our super powers the way it does for Superman. For some of us, it’s toxic substances, toxic environments, or toxic people. Some of us make poor choices about the people or places we hang about in, some of us think we need to please everyone, and some of us work too much to avoid emotional involvement.

The heart of Superman is forever young

At an advanced age, after multiple attacks from criminal types, and the burden of saving the planet over the years, even Superman gets tired. We Christians take the verse, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” as a Superman quote, forgetting all the other verses which reflect the humanity of Jesus: he was tired and hungry, so he rested at a well in Samaria; he was moved by the death of a friend, and wept at the news. We might need to recover the superhuman courage of the disabled and the aged instead. These find their strength in their weakness, as Paul reminds us in 1 Corinthians 1:25—

“For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.”

The older people I know all believe, “If I get out of bed, I’m going to have a good day. It’s my choice and I’m going to make it a good one. At my age, I don’t have time to waste on bad days!”

If I roll out of bed singing and wondering where my coffee cup is, I know it’s a good day. Then again, I always have a daily plan to do something creative: paint, write, quilt, cook, and if I must, make the condo more beautiful by cleaning it. I share my spiritual thoughts over several media platforms. It’s good to do ministry this way, since I have to keep a low profile due to my seizure disorder.

When we get to a certain age, people begin to ask, “Can he or she still do the job?” We make several assumptions when we ask this question:

  1. The way we imagine the work of ministry requires lots of energy.
  2. We prefer a young person to do this work because of our preconceived ideas about the nature of the work.
  3. We want a fresh face to represent us in the community because a young person reflects well on us.
  4. We think like attracts like, so a young pastor will attract young families.
Alexander the Great, a model of the ever youthful hero

However, we sometimes get more than we bargained for when our Wonder Woman or Superman “young hero” pastor prayers are answered:

  1. We don’t want to move as fast as the energetic young leader.
  2. Young leaders have novel ideas, but we’ve never done it that way.
  3. Young leaders often believe everyone should be in ministry.
  4. Young leaders remind us the congregation is the best representative in the community because they continue, while clergy come and go.
  5. The leader doesn’t change us, for we can only change ourselves.
  6. While a leader may attract new people, those who are part of the ongoing system will keep them by integrating them into the faith community.
Michelangelo: David, the youth as hero

One of the interesting aspects of working with the differently abled is an employer’s willingness to restructure the workplace setting or requirements to mesh with the employee’s abilities. We still have a notion of ministry that hasn’t been seriously reimagined since the 1950’s, when married clergy men were the norm and non working clergy wives were taking care of the children, house, and volunteering in the church and community.

One thing never changes, however: clergy bear the existential burdens of ministry—they carry the weight of others’ emotional and spiritual burdens, they’re overwhelmed by others’ needs and the importance of ministerial issues, and they’re expected to solve unsolvable mysteries of life in relationships.

Wonder Woman, still a hero

This would age any Superman or Wonder Woman, but they persist in their callings to love and serve others. As Paul would say of his own people, “the gifts and calling of God are irrevocable” (Romans 11:29). We are all called to serve by virtue of our baptism into the life, death, resurrection, and ministry of Jesus Chris. Therefore we each have gifts, and these we must use for God’s glory as long as we have breath and strength.

Maybe we won’t be the starting quarterback anymore, but we’ll wait our turn on the bench to take on the last ditch two minute drill, or comfort the grieving when they come off the field in whatever loss they suffer. God will use us as long as we have breath, and God will put us in the right place, at the right time, to be the hands and heart of Christ for those who need us at that opportune moment.

Henri Nouwen, the great spiritual writer, wrote about aging in this way, basing his commentary on Job 12:12 (NIV), “Is not wisdom found among the aged? Does not long life bring understanding?“ He said,

“Much violence in our society is based on the illusion of immortality, which is the illusion that life is a property to be defended and not a gift to be shared. When the elderly no longer can bring us in contact with our own aging, we quickly start playing dangerous power games to uphold the illusion of being ageless and immortal. Then, not only will the wisdom of the elderly remain hidden from us, but the elderly themselves will lose their own deepest understanding of life. For who can remain a teacher when there are no students willing to learn?”

Joy, peace, and May you find your inner superhero,

Cornelia

Unknown Artist: Alexander the Great, from Alexandria, Egypt, 3rd cent. BCE, Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen (5), CC BY 2.0,

Michelangelo: David, 1501-1504, marble, Academia Galleries, Florence, Italy.

Climate Change Indicators: Cold-Related Deaths | US EPA
https://www.epa.gov/climate-indicators/climate-change-indicators-cold-related-deaths

The Prolonged 1954 Midwestern U.S. Heat Wave: Impacts and Responses in: Weather, Climate, and Society Volume 3 Issue 3 (2011)
https://journals.ametsoc.org/view/journals/wcas/3/3/wcas-d-10-05002_1.xml

See the most extreme temperatures in Louisiana history
https://www.ksla.com/2022/04/11/see-most-extreme-temperatures-louisiana-history/

Arkansas annual temperatures and records
https://coolweather.net/statetemperature/arkansas_temperature.htm

Arthur C. Clarke: Islands in the Sky, 1952. An early novel of space travel, as seen through the eyes of a young contest winner.

Is George Blanda the Oldest NFL Player of All Time? | Stadium Talk
https://www.stadiumtalk.com/s/george-blanda-oldest-nfl-player-789d32390d914687

Nouwen Meditation: The Illusion of Immortality
September 7, 2022 at 4:02:09 AM CDT
Henri Nouwen Society email_lists@henrinouwen.org

Tom Brady Continues Chasing George Blanda’s Records – The Virginian Review
https://wvdn.mynews360.com/news/17796/tom-brady-continues-chasing-george-blandas-records/

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