March 2008

The students are back here at Virginia Theological Seminary and I’m struck by what a very nice lot they are. I especially like the ones who mistake me for a perspective student on interview – I must look young! I am introduced as a visiting scholar which sounds very grand but brings special priviledges in the Bishop Payne Library. Dr Budde, the Head librarian, shows me around the quarter of a million books and periodicals. I have been give a small study in the library which is furnished with paper and pens. My lap top completes all that is necessary for hours of harmless time passed creatively! I quickly find some books in the pastoral theology section and am glad to report that they have my own volumes – a couple of which look very unread !! Everything – well almost everything – here in America is done on a much larger scale. That includes religion and theological education.

My excitement can hardly be contained when I get into the electronic journals on line! A feast of articles from across the globe .. I browse in philosophy and art, politics and geography. You wouldnt believe how patchy my geography of the States is!

I think that the Episcopal Church is in good heart – I am impressed by the intelligence and rigour and seriousness of ministry here. There is a quality and depth about church life. We have much to learn from it.

Thanks to Cliff Morrey (probably) my blog viewing figures have soared to dizzy heights ! Kind lot – I’m sure it won’t last! I hope that visitors to the virtual Temple Balsall will also increase as a result of my buisness cards! Back to my books and space.

Borders bookshops are a great place to escape – it feels like walking into a home or more accurately where a group of people have made it their temporary home. The smell of coffee and toasted bread – the students trying to find textooks and an odd variety of people who are hidden in corners reading like their life depends on it. I wander in determined not to buy anything but fail. The strength of the English pound make it all feel like a bargain.

My first read  comes with the title  The Importance of Being Lazy by a philosopher Al Gini – his real name I think!! Philosophers have gone popular these days to make money from the likes of me. Its a great book with its subtitle In Praise of Play, Leisure and Vacations ( Routledge New York 2005). The thesis? We all know how to work bu not how to play. We need time off – doing nothing is a fundamental human necessity. It is a witty breezy tour of our workaholic society where we have become osbssessed with the tasks of life.

This speaks to me at the beginning of three months sabbatical leave where time is my gift! I find the prospect both terrifying and liberating in same measure. We are in for interesting times……watch this space and thanks Al for a great read!!

The Aging in America conference is over and the delegates left the Marriot ballroom in good order telling each other that they would meet again in Las Vegas next March! I wonder if I could get away with that trip on parish expenses? I wondered about home and Temple Balsall on the Sunday that is traditionally known as Low Sunday. After a short service at 7am in the local church I headed for the city – most of my fellow worshippers were off to play golf – God and Golf – what a combination. The conference got political today with the three Presidential running candidates senior policy advisors taking questions. They were all impressive and very nice to each other but there was a disappointing level of direct answers. I was interested to note that the crisis over spending and health is more acute in the States than the UK – and no one wanting to admit that raising taxes might be the only solution for dealing with the need for extra spending on older people.

There is an acceptance here that this election ( till not until the Autumn) is the most important in a generation and that there is sense of an end to the Conservative era begun in the 1980’s. No agreement about which politician might be able to sieze the moment. ‘This is a moment of progressive opportunity’ claimed a leading journalist form The Washington Post, ‘an opportunity for making our society more just’. The audience roared with approval – I don’t think we English get as excited by politics – perhaps we do not think that they matter as much ? One thing that many were agreed upon – the issue of older people is one that frightens politicians – they need their votes but fear the political challenges that seniors represent.

All this debate took place in a very civilised way – we were seated around tables and breakfast served by an army of waiters. I have never seen as many muffins in all my life!!! ‘Who would you vote?’ for asked my neighbour – a health promotion expert from Minneapolis – ‘thats easy’ I replied ‘ I haven’t a vote – I’m English!’ That avoided any conflict nicely – and she told me of her admiration for Hilary Clinton who she believed is the only candidate that has any real wisdom about health and social care issues.

I walked into the Centre to see the White House – clean but rather small – and surrounded by a thousand guns. Back to VTS and the nice suprise that a parishoner ( Cliff Morrey) is following the blog – thanks Cliff!!!

The conference continues with the most breathtaking array of material and an ethusiasm about older people and their care which is very powerful. I wonder if it would be possible for such an event to take place in the UK? I move between workshop and lecture interested in story telling, successful aging and spiritual care.

One dynamic continues to intrigue me. There is an uneasiness about the quality of our provision of care. In reply to the challenge about whether the group would attend the day centre (or senior centres as they are called here) very few put their hands up! Are we really providing these services that we wouldn’t be happy using ourselves? How far are we aware of what is wrong with the organizations that we oversee? Put another way – what kind of support and care do we need or want in our own old age?

Perhaps every generation needs to reinvent the wheel? What does post traditional old age look like for our generation? Will we plan and pay for it? And how deep is our desire to move and change in our present work – where are the gaps and do we want to fill them?!

Life is not a problem to be solved but a mystery to be entered into.

Live and Love the questions (Rilke)

Picture the scene. 3,600 delegates crammed into the Ball Room of a Washington Hotel listening to a choir of ‘seniors’ as they call them over here. I am feeling the after effects of too little sleep and some jet lag having just flown from London yesterday. It is the Aging in America conference and the start of a sabbatical. I’m findng hard to unwind from work and home but the conference programme is 269 pages long and only covers four days!

I have already been taken on a journey through the demographic time bomb of China by a group of academics and bump into an old friend from Princeton Theological Seminary. We met eight or nine years ago and she still remembers Temple Balsall and the lunch I cooked all that time age ago. Abigal Evans is Professor of Practical Theology and we share an interest in health, ethics and death! Despite the queue lunch was good! I firmly resisted chips!

The first day ended with the most extraordinary reflection from Maya Angelou – she sat in a chair – and without a note talked about her life and especially the meanings and humour of ageing. Moving – tender – rich – honest – wise and deeply spiritual. Her love has been carved out of the rock of pain, rejection and deep oppression. She showed 3 600 people how to laugh at themselves and how important was the work of presence with older people. She reminded us of how badly we can treat older people but above all of the power and virtue of courage.

We listened to her poetry and she asked us to change the world through our influence. Her smile and eyes will remain in my memory for a very long time.