by Rev. Tom Snyder, Pastor Emeritus and Visitation Pastor, First and Christ United Methodist Churches, Ashland, Ohio.
Words are fascinating aren't they? For me, they are especially interesting when used in a new way, implying a new connotation. When Ashland University announced several weeks ago that several a majors would be eliminated and a number of classes phased out, this gradual elimination was called "sunsetting"-- a new term for me. Having retired from the parish fifteen years ago and retiring from teaching this summer, I think I must be sunsetting!
The photograph above is of our daughter-in-law, Jill, and grandchildren, Thomas and Zoe, kayaking in the sunset at Lakeside two weeks ago. So many times over the years have we stood or sat on or near the dock to watch the most glorious sunsets. The sun blazes, then softens, illuminating the sky and reflecting yellows, oranges, shades of blue and purple in the rippling water, then slowly melts over the Catawba peninsula.
These sunsets are cause for a sheer soothing of the soul, a reminder of the grandeur of God's creation, a reaffirmation of beauty's possibilities, possibly a wave for nostalgia, an anticipation of rest. Does anyone else remember singing at camp vespers, "Day is dying in the west; heaven is touching earth with rest; wait and worship while the night sets the evening lamps alight through all the sky. Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of Hosts! Heaven and earth are full of thee! Heaven and earth are praising thee, O Lord most high!"
It was quite common when I was early on in ministry, for the small memorial folders issued by funeral homes to feature lines from Tennyson's "Crossing the Bar:" “Sunset and evening star,/And one clear call for me! And may there be no moaning at the bar,/When I put out to sea." Although this was not the last verse he ever penned, Tennyson requested that it be the final entry of all collections of his work. The last stanza is a faith statement: "Though out of bourne of Time and Place/The flood may bear me far,/I hope to see my Pilot face to face/When I have crossed the bar."
Over forty years ago I was introduced to the Lutheran theologian, Joseph Sittler, whose ideas and writing I came to cherish. Ecumenist, early proponent of ecological concern, engaging speaker, I was blessed to hear him in person twice. The first time was at our conference school for ministry in the late 1970's. One evening, my late friend and colleague, John Landrum, and I took him out for ice cream. He poked fun at us by observing that when he went out with the Lutherans, they met over the suds; when he was with the Methodists, it was ice cream!
Sittler had been a colleague of Tillich's at the University of Chicago, worked with other eminent theologians and thinkers, most of whom were deceased. One of our clergy asked him, very personally some of us thought, what that was like for him. At that time I was dealing with my own parents' aging and increasing infirmity, their fears and my sadness in seeing it. His thoughtful answer has stayed with me across the decades. His reply was something like this: "My worlds are dying around me. If I were robbed all at once of the persons, relationships, ideas and abilities that have moved me and given my life meaning, it would be an overwhelming loss and grief. But it is a process, and I am a part of that process, and that gives me comfort."
In the summer of 1980, Kitty and I were blessed to hear this sage at Chautauqua. He had lost his sight. I guided his hand to the title page of one of his books for his autograph. He lectured for an hour and a half five afternoons, noteless because of his blindness, and we were mesmerized by his erudition, his grace, his faith, his continued zest for living. He closed out the series by quoting from John Berryman's poem, "Eleven Addresses to the Lord", which so complemented what I heard him affirm just a few years before: "Whatever your end may be, accept my amazement./May I stand until death forever at attention/for any your least instruction or enlightenment./I even feel sure you will assist me again, Master of insight and beauty." Along with his worlds, Sittler died in 1987.
My worlds die around me: family members, church family, cherished colleagues and mentors, activities and abilities which used to come easily, ideals which have been modified by societal and political shifts; those stalwarts I thought (against all evidence to the contrary!) would live forever. I suppose this is, in my life, the meaning of "sunsetting". I know, however, that the Master of insight and beauty assists me along the way, so I will live in amazement, forever at attention, listening for instruction, awaiting enlightenment. And watching for sunsets.