He’s 94, but his eyes are still clear, and he drives his car, albeit these days only to the store and church and, sometimes, to the doctor. His deft fingers that once repaired watches are still steady, and his eyes crinkle as he tells you a story, and the closer he gets to the punchline, the deeper the crinkles.
He’s been a preacher longer than I have been alive and still preaches in the small church in the town where he lives every Sunday. He comes from a long line of preachers. His ancestors were hard folks with a hard religion, preached without electricity from brush arbors in rural Arkansas and Mississippi and Tennessee in a time that needed hard folks. I’ve never heard him preach, but his people are Bible-beaters with clenched fists that punch the air to make a point.
He buried two wives and a daughter, and when he was a young man, his government put him in a green uniform and sent him from the hills where he grew up to a destroyed city in Japan, where he helped clean up the aftermath of the atomic bomb. After you see death on that scale, not much surprises you anymore.
And every Saturday, he fires up his ancient computer and makes a PowerPoint presentation with the Bible verses he will use in tomorrow’s sermon, along with the key points of his message. And at night, when he misses his wife and his daughter, and the house is a little too quiet, he will get out the old box of photos and scan them into his computer, and then share them on Facebook, tagging my wife to show her how pretty her mother was when she was a teenager.
I learned about the weekly Powerpoint ritual a few years back at Thanksgiving. He had driven in from two counties over, where he was living at the time, to eat with his grandchildren and great-grandchildren. I said how impressive it was that he was proficient with a scanner and Facebook. One of his granddaughters mentioned the weekly PowerPoint presentations.
I told him that I had never quite gotten the hang of PowerPoint. He looked at me with a twinkle in his eye and said, “It’s not hard. I could teach you if you want me to.”
The thing I fear most as I grow older is not the inevitable decline in physical ability, or even the loss of my mental faculties, although that is a concern. No, the thing I fear most is that bit by bit, I become less open, less accepting, and more fearful of that which is different or novel to me. More than anything, I fear stagnation.
I know many people who were at the cutting edge of the Civil Rights movement or who fought literal fights to get women ordained in their churches who then quit progressing. I was in a meeting once with a revered, legendary civil rights activist whose story has filled many a book, and watched him poke fun at people for announcing their pronouns and heard him call the term Latinx “silly.” It was sad, really. One day, he decided he had gone far enough, and the world passed him by.
Progress is a moving target, of course. What was seen as progressive in 1964 is basic human decency today. Yesterday’s radical is today’s Rotary Club member. Just like Great White Sharks, who must be in constant movement lest they suffocate, we must ever be moving forward, ever open, and not content to rest on what we did once, long ago.