Only More So
Several years ago I took the plunge and got a copy of Julia Child’s classic cookbook. Among the many lessons I learned from Julia is how to reduce a sauce. The flavors not only become concentrated, they actually develop new dimensions in their reduced state. But the thing that really stands out is that the flavors possess their essential quality, only more so.
Today’s column is not about cooking, however. It is about aging.
I’ve spent a good deal of my life and ministry close to older people, and I am one now. I have noticed something remarkable about aging.
Unless we have the great misfortune of developing a debilitating neurological problem or illness or are somehow injured, our personalities, our essential qualities and characteristics, as we age, become concentrated, as though we are a sauce being reduced.
Over time, we become who we are, only more so.
When I first met Walter Lazenby, he had been retired from ministry for more than twenty years, but stories about Walter lingered wherever he had served. When he was pastor of the Grand Avenue Presbyterian Church in Sherman, Texas, it was well known that Walter couldn’t bring himself to leave anyone out. He exuded so much patience and kindness, it nearly drove others nuts.
When he was chairing a committee meeting or moderating the session, he might start the meeting over two or three times – right from the beginning – for the benefit of each latecomer who straggled in. To Walter every late arrival would be greeted like the prodigal child long lost, at last found. And that was when Walter was middle-aged, pastoring a church across the street from a Presbyterian college, full of business folks and university personnel. He only got more so as he aged.
By the time I got to know Walter he was nearly ninety and was a member of my flock in Brenham, Texas. Every morning, like clock-work, Walter put on his jacket and a tie and walked from his house a few blocks into downtown. He went from one store to another making pastoral visits. Everyone, from the salespeople at Western Auto to the ladies serving warm muffins at the little coffee shop near the square to the tellers in the bank, looked forward to seeing Walter’s smiling face. He became the pastor of all the shop-keepers in town, greeting all of them by name, listening to how they were doing, and leaving them with a cheerful, “See you tomorrow.”
Walter did far more good in that town than I ever did. His warm, wise, open heart made room for everyone. And, until the day he died, he became more and more so every day. He was concentrated kindness.
I had heard about Morgan Roberts for years before I met him and his wife Nora in their home in southern Florida. Morgan was one of the most respected preachers in the Presbyterian Church, not only during his years as Senior Pastor of Shadyside Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, but also in retirement in large congregations in Lexington, Kentucky, and Birmingham, Alabama. Again, I had heard the name Morgan Roberts spoken with hushed respect, but I was utterly unprepared for the person I met.
Instead of a tall, dark and handsome prince of the pulpit, a combination of Gregory Peck, Cary Grant and Peter Marshall, I met a somewhat smallish, somewhat roundish man with the sweetest spirit I have ever encountered in this world. As a preacher, he has a way of sneaking up on your blind side, working his way into your heart, finding that most vulnerable soft spot into which his message of pure grace would work with that beautiful soft near-baritone voice of his. And as a pastor and a friend, I discovered he is matchless.
I recall a conversation with one of his church members in Birmingham, Alabama. The man, one of the most successful and wealthy businessmen in the country, with financial interests on virtually every continent, told me that he would be hard pressed to find a political or cultural or economic point on which he agreed with Morgan, but “I love him and I would do anything in the world for him.”
Those who know Morgan know that like his friend the late Fred Rogers, Morgan exudes grace and acceptance. He really does love you just the way you are. He has made his own mistakes in life. He is the first one to recognize that. He has stumbled and he has fallen. And because he knows what it feels like to fail, he never fails to offer a hand up to someone else on the ground. And, if you can’t get up yet, Morgan will sit down next to you quietly and patiently, knowing that what you need right then isn’t words, just the presence of someone who won’t judge you.
To know Morgan is to know, personally and deeply, unconditional love, not just his, but God’s. And, if you knew him thirty years ago, and met him again today, the thing you’d notice is this: He is still the same Morgan you knew thirty years ago, only more so.
There are a lot of factors involved in becoming only more so.
I suspect that life is the primary agent in the process. Like the fire on my range that lets the liquid heat at just the right level, as I stir it regularly, life provides the heat, the stresses that stir us, the difficulties and the pains, the joys, the celebrations, and the losses, that help to concentrate our character.
But, you see the problem don’t you?
If we resist, and deny, and try to avoid life’s realities, if we cling to what we have, to what we know, and fight against life’s inevitable changes, if we greet life and others with fears and anxieties, that which concentrates will not be the kind of character that others will likely tell wonderful stories about when, at last, we also shuffle off this mortal coil.
I’d like to resist telling stories about those I’ve known who have transformed their pains and losses into a constant state of suffering, those who have become fearful, only more so; mean, only more so; bitter, only more so; angry, only more so; grasping, only more so. We have all seen this happen. There are some folks who rehearse again and again their experiences of loss and annoyance, anger and fear, until, frankly, no one wants to be with them. They exude that which repels rather than attracts. Sadly, becoming only more so can have devastating effects.
I do believe it is true that, as we age, we don’t necessarily so much change as become “more so.” But, in order for the “more so” we become to be the character by which we would like to be remembered, it requires our participation, our courage and discipline, and a willingness to face reality with an open heart.
It is probably inevitable, to some degree, to become “more so.” That’s life. But, I truly believe that we can cultivate and nurture the qualities we hope will dominate our character. And it is never too early to start.