Monday, June 5, 2017

Sarah's Surprise

Genesis 18:1-15, (21:1-7)

“How come we got the extra years? Was it luck, good genes, modern medicine? Or are we doing something right?” Carl Reiner, 95

At age 70, I pay a little more attention to the events of Abraham and Sarah’s old age.

Clearly this vigorous couple shattered gerontology’s glass ceiling. But did they set achievable goals for the rest of us sexy senior citizens?

The truth is, one’s attitudes change with encroaching geezerhood. And the change is comprehensive.

At 70, I’m in good health, despite a heart attack in my late sixties. My cardiologist says my heart function is “normal” and I walk a couple miles several times a week to keep my blood flowing. But when my three-score-and-ten milestone was reached on the heels of a health scare, I began to see life through a different lens.

My body tells me I should no longer lift window air conditioners, 40-pound bags of dog food, or heavy wet snow. But I do all of that when no one is looking because I feel useless sitting around watching others do it.

I still receive the emailed employment notices I subscribed to when the church-organizations I worked for declared me redundant, and some of the job openings seem interesting. But I delete them as soon as they appear in my inbox because I think 70 is a bad time to begin a new career.  And when I begin to doubt that, President Trump proves me right every day.

I still buy green bananas, but I try not to postpone plans for vacations, cruises, or family gatherings as if there’s plenty of time to work them in.  The warning of Proverbs 27:1 that “tomorrow is promised to no one” applies to us all, of course, but at 70 you really believe it.

At 70, even my fantasy life is circumspect. Sitting with my spouse to watch Wonder Woman on an IMAX screen last weekend, it crossed my mind that Gal Gadot is exceptionally hot. But then I remembered that I have four children older than Gal, and my thoughts turn to, “Her father must be so proud.”

Despite all that, I don’t find 70 to be particularly inconvenient. Retirement is good and – except for the three unpredictable dogs that share my space when I’m alone – I have a fair amount of freedom. I walk when I want, eat lunch when I want, watch Perry Mason reruns when I want, and nap when I want. I enjoy my predictable comfort. 

I’m sure that’s how Abraham and Sarah felt in their old age: comfortable and content. I can understand that. So what if they were approaching their 11th decade? So long as they had their health, why mess with the routine?

But God is not a God of contentment.
The LORD appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day. He looked up and saw three men standing near him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent entrance to meet them, and bowed down to the ground.
He said, “My lord, if I find favor with you, do not pass by your servant. Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree. Let me bring a little bread, that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may pass on--since you have come to your servant.” So they said, “Do as you have said.”
And Abraham hastened into the tent to Sarah, and said, “Make ready quickly three measures of choice flour, knead it, and make cakes.”Abraham ran to the herd, and took a calf, tender and good, and gave it to the servant, who hastened to prepare it. Then he took curds and milk and the calf that he had prepared, and set it before them; and he stood by them under the tree while they ate.
They said to him, “Where is your wife Sarah?” And he said, “There, in the tent.”
Then one said, “I will surely return to you in due season, and your wife Sarah shall have a son.” And Sarah was listening at the tent entrance behind him.
Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in age; it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women. So Sarah laughed to herself, saying, “After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?”
The LORD said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh, and say, ‘Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?’ Is anything too wonderful for the LORD? At the set time I will return to you, in due season, and Sarah shall have a son.”
But Sarah denied, saying, “I did not laugh”; for she was afraid. He said, “Oh yes, you did laugh.” (Exodus 18:1-15)
In our gentrified versions of Genesis, in the King James or Revised Standard Version, Sarah’s comment to herself is dignified and grandmotherly: “After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?” Earlier translations, including the Book of J, are more to the point. Sarah said plainly that her husband’s instrument of nation building had dangled uselessly for years. 

At 70, I have a clearer idea how Abraham and Sarah felt than I did at 40. For decades they had been experiencing the creeping dysfunctions of age. Abraham dangled uselessly, Sarah had not menstruated in sixty years, and sensual pleasure was confined to the availability of sweet cakes and curds. Now God wants them to drop the tent flaps and do the nasty on a camel rug? If Sarah laughed, I’m sure it was a nervous giggle.

Fortunately, the scene fades to black (something scripture does not always do) so we don’t have to watch Abraham and Sarah in action. But a year later Sarah delivers Isaac and the nation building begins. In the pre-Viagran, pre-K-Y age, it was a palpable miracle.

From my vantage point, the miracle is God’s reminder that we are never too old to be useful. Not all of us will become so chronologically gifted that we will experience that miracle. But for those who make it, God has plans.

This week’s New York Times has an article on Carl Reiner, 95. The older he gets, the more I love him. His HBO documentary is titled, “If You’re Not in the Obit, Eat Breakfast,” is based on a famous one-liner he may have originated.

Reiner’s documentary, and his latest book, Too Busy to Die, (Clear Productions, Inc.), are tributes to longevity and to several of his nonagenarian friends, including Mel Brooks, Betty White, and Norman Lear. I’d add other immortals-over-90, including Cicely Tyson, Doris Day, Harry Belafonte, Hugh Hefner, Larry Storch, Hugh Downs, Rose Marie, Angela Lansbury, and Dick Van Dyke. My mother-in-law, Julia Montes Cruz, turned 90 in January.

The Times article, by Dan Hyman, highlights the views on aging of several of Reiner’s contemporaries, including Mel Brooks, 90, and Norman Lear, 94. 

“There is living and dying; there’s no retirement,” Brooks said. “If we die, then we can’t do much. But as long as we’re alive, we can still tap dance, we can still crack a joke, we can still sing a song, we can still tell a story.”

Lear decried the stereotype of aged people as “decrepit and weak and foolish. The culture has an impression of aging that is not realistic. To get the laughs, it paints a picture of older people as infirm, as whiny, and as incapacitated and foolish. I don’t think that’s who we are.”

None of the nonagenarians in the Times article are as old as Abraham and Sarah when they embarked on the most important task of their lives. But each of them would have understood why Sarah laughed when she was told what God had planned for her. 

As Mel Brooks said, there is living and there is dying. But when God has a plan for us, no matter how old we may get, there is no retirement. 

And if a little miracle is required to energize us, we should be prepared to expect it.

1 comment:

  1. Mr. Jenks: I'm a journalist/author who came across your blog about your Dad's diary, and would very much like to ask you a few questions for a book I might do about the Buna campaign, or at least one aspect of it. My name is Steve Twomey, I used to work for The Washington Post, and last November Simon & Schuster published a book I did about Pearl Harbor. My email: