By David Gushee
This year I have been working my way through the books dropped from the Protestant canon. I admit that when I was a Catholic kid I never read them and after I became a Baptist I believed I was not supposed to read them. I therefore missed an important part of the legacy of the Jewish tradition to the church and the world.
The Book of Sirach has become a favorite. It’s a wisdom writing somewhat in the style of the book of Proverbs that still communicates considerable wisdom across the centuries.
On the day I turned 48 (gulp!) last week, I reached Sirach 7:18-36. This section of the book systematically walks through the pious man’s (yes, the intended audience appears to be primarily male) responsibilities toward his friends, wife, servants, animals, sons, daughters, father, mother, religious leaders, the poor, the grieving, the sick, the dead and — in and through all these — God.
In sum, the advice is: toward friends, fidelity; toward wife, permanence and charity; toward servants, restraint and eventually freedom; toward animals, care; toward sons and daughters, discipline and vigilance; toward parents, honor and gratitude; toward priests, reverence and respect; toward the poor, generosity; toward the sick, visits; toward the grieving, shared mourning; toward the dead, kindness; and toward God, fear, love and honor, “with all your soul” (Sir. 7:29) and “with all your strength” (Sir. 7:30).
To me, this word was timely. I have felt myself awash in a sea of middle age. I am at 20 years since beginning my career and hope to be about 20 years away from its end. My wife and I are smack-dab in the middle of the generations, with aging, beloved parents still with us and children now beginning to get married and move away. I know what I once strived for, what mountains I used to try to climb. I have not quite found out what mountains still lie ahead, what to strive for in the second half of life.
The text from Sirach called me back to that clarity of purpose and identity found in the permanent relationships of life. Instead of looking for new mountains to climb or dreams to pursue, Sirach calls the reader to attend to life’s stable geography. I heard this word: Don’t scan the distant horizon for new possibilities for reinvention; look around you — to the wife and children, parents and siblings, friends and colleagues, church brothers and sisters, poor and hurting neighbors — who populate your world this very day.
Joyfully, I then had the opportunity that day to touch base or spend time with just about every member of my immediate and extended family. All these relationships are healthy and at peace. All conversations were happy and positive. Really, who can ask for more than that?
Two months ago I wrote of my beloved sister Janette, who had undergone surgery for a brain tumor. For those who inquired after her and have been praying for her, I thank you. She is on my mind as I write this because she is one who has lost many of the anchor points for her identity over the course of the last six months. She is in stable health with a promising prognosis, thanks be to God. But the question for her now is, as it is for so many dislocated adults in our society, where she will find anchoring and identity when so much has been disrupted and she has to start over at mid-life.
This dislocation is one of the hidden costs of our culture of reinvention. The issue is acutely related to the column I wrote last time about marriage and divorce. One reason for the Christian tradition of lifelong, covenanted marriage is that human beings in general do better with anchorage and roots than with rootlessness and constant reinvention. Our culture celebrates the courage of those willing to tear everything up and start over, but there is a peculiar kind of moral nausea associated with a life that has no fixed points of reference.
Our most permanent and settled relationships are the ones addressed in that passage from Sirach. We gain identity — we know who we are and whose we are — in relationships that endure and to which we have permanent obligations. They help a 48-year-old man like me know that whatever I may dream about or strive for in any season of life, I know who I am through my identity as son and son-in-law, husband and father, brother and uncle, churchmate and friend, and child of the God from whom I come and to whom I shall give account of my life.