Friday 10 May 2019 | Open Table
WISDOM OF OUR ELDERS
Bring some mains to share, and come with a story to tell in response to the stimulus on the topic of “Wisdom of Our Elders” (slides here).
Who has impacted you the most as an older mentor?
What tale best captures your connection?
What aspects of her life and character stand out?
What lessons have you learned from him?
What mistakes were most salient for your own journey?
What pithy wisdom have these elders proffered?
We’ll explore stories of ageing, what we’ve learned from those who’ve lived well and also would rather forget from our grumpy forebears. Generally, we’ll trade hard earned wisdom that gave many their grey hairs!
At Nathan and Melissa McConaghy’s place (69 Sunset Rd., Kenmore, 4069). Welcome from 7pm, official kick off at 7:30pm. Any questions before the night? Call/txt Dave on 0491138487.
Art | Rembrandt’s Self-Portraits video. Also “Emily Kame Kngwarreye with Lily,” by Australian artist, Jenny Sages (1993), in the National Portrait Gallery. Chosen by our resident artist, Deb Mostert, she reflects, “I almost wept at this when viewing it in real life at the Tweed gallery … it is visceral and powerful … and I like that Jenny and Emily were the same age when this was painted and that they yarned like ‘two 83 years do’.”
Here’s a bit more on the subject:
Emily Kame Kngwarreye (Kngwarrey) (c.1910–1996), Anmatyerre artist, was born at Alhalkere, Utopia Station in the Northern Territory. After her ancestral land was appropriated for cattle grazing, she worked as a stockhand. As she grew older she became a leader in women’s ceremonial business, experienced in ceremonial body painting. From 1977 she collaborated in the production of batik, an important industry for the Anmatyerre after they regained land title. She first painted on canvas in 1988. In the course of her brief career she produced thousands of canvases depicting the flowers, roots, dust and summer rains of her country, the translucent colours built up with layered touches of paint to create an illusion of depth and movement. In 1998 a retrospective exhibition of Kngwarreye’s work, Alhalkere – Paintings from Utopia, travelled to three state galleries and the National Gallery of Australia. Ten years later Utopia: The Genius of Emily Kame Kngwarrey, an exhibition of 120 of the artist’s works, showed in Osaka and Tokyo. With that exhibition, Kngwarreye was recognised as one of the very greatest abstract artists of the twentieth century.
Text & Reflection | Proverbs 1:1-9 (NLT/MSG), composed by Solomon as arguably the world’s wisest person. He set out the first of thirty chapters for his son, like cairns marking the way to life, for children to come.
These are the proverbs of Solomon, David’s son, king of Israel.
Their purpose is to teach people wisdom and discipline,
to help them understand the insights of the wise.
Their purpose is to teach people to live disciplined and successful lives,
to help them do what is right, just, and fair.
These proverbs will give insight to the simple,
knowledge and discernment to the young.
Let the wise listen to these proverbs and become even wiser.
Let those with understanding receive guidance
by exploring the meaning in these proverbs and parables,
the words of the wise and their riddles.
Fear of the Lord is the foundation of true knowledge,
but fools despise wisdom and discipline.
My child, listen when your father corrects you.
Don’t neglect your mother’s instruction.
What you learn from them will crown you with grace
and be a chain of honor around your neck.
Proverbs are short, well-known pithy sayings, stating a general truth or piece of advice. As a forty-something adult, showing clear signs of ageing, I take comfort in the many proverbs and generic advice offered across the Bible, referencing my changing complexion and ‘crown’, and guarding against today’s rampant “elder abuse” (also here).
It sounds best in the Old King Jimmy. Here’s a sample:
Thou shalt rise up before the hoary head, and honour the face of the old man, and fear thy God: I am the Lord. (Leviticus 19:32)
The hoary head is a crown of glory, if it be found in the way of righteousness. (Proverbs 16:31)
The glory of young men is their strength: and the beauty of old men is the grey head. (Proverbs 20:29)
Rebuke not an elder, but intreat him as a father; and the younger men as brethren; The elder women as mothers; the younger as sisters, with all purity. (1 Timothy 5:1-2)
Now also when I am old and greyheaded, O God, forsake me not; until I have shewed thy strength unto this generation, and thy power to every one that is to come. (Psalm 71:18)
And even to your old age I am he; and even to hoar hairs will I carry you: I have made, and I will bear; even I will carry, and will deliver you. (Isaiah 46:4)
If a “hoary head” isn’t your thing, then perhaps this modern rendering says it best: “Silver hair is a beautiful crown found in a righteous life” (Proverbs 16:31).
Note that there is nothing automatic about ageing producing this kind of life. Rather, as the grey hairs grow, the rough and tumble of hard experiences tests our mettle, refining and revealing what was only nascent as a youngin. No wonder the globally recognised wise-man, Nelson Mandela, took great pains in 2007 to set up “The Elders” as an independent group, consulting with governments to guide us out of intractable conflict and human rights abuses, instead toward peace and justice. They have the historical distance to see turbulent events as located in the wider stream of human experience. Ignore their insight at your own peril. As G. K. Chesterton quipped, “The disadvantage of [people] not knowing the past is that they do not know the present.” Or, as polymath and sage historian George Santayana said,
Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness. When change is absolute there remains no being to improve and no direction is set for possible improvement: and when experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual.
Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. (The Life of Reason, 1905-1906)
In our narcissistic culture addicted to adolescence, rushing from achievement to achievement, it takes self-control to slow down and learn at the feet of our elders. And yet, their many years–more often than not–are a tribute to hard won wisdom. It’s worth hearing, and may well add years to our lives, saving us from stupid mistakes that need not be made. For this reason, among many more, our elders are worth celebrating!
I’m looking forward to hearing your stories as we gather for this open table. In the spirit of vulnerability and priming the pump, here is a foretaste of what I hope to share, about my favourite ‘wise elder’, who was ‘promoted to glory’ more than a few years ago. It’s a reflection I first wrote as the preface to my Nanna’s poetry collection, later published as a blog on Wonderingfair.com, capturing what I learned from watching her suffer with incredible grace.
Nanna’s Rainbows in the Tears
There is no guarantee how suffering will shape a soul. As C.S. Lewis, the imaginative author of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, once noted,
I am not convinced that suffering has any natural tendency to produce such evils [as] anger and cynicism. … I have seen great beauty of spirit in some who were great sufferers.
One such “great sufferer” must certainly be Nell Hodgson. Across a lifetime of adventures, she had faced loss of loved ones, a near-death experience while giving birth, and three bouts of cancer, not to mention numerous rounds of chemotherapy. Yet as a child, I knew none of this. Nell—or ‘Nanna’ as I knew her—was to me an imaginative storyteller … a living, breathing “Wardrobe” offering a gateway to my own Narnia.
Recently I was jogging through Noosa National Park with a Canadian friend, pointing out the great diversity and character in the surrounding trees. In place of uniform stands of pines were paperbarks and gnarled gumtrees. Nanna quickly came to mind. Trees like these were features in many of her paintings, and her poems. Nanna loved nature. She used to tell tales of fairies in the garden, replete with intricate details of what each would wear and how they would move. The banksia bush had a larger-than-life personality in her imagination. At the least opportune time—like when picking me up from a friend’s place—Nanna would quietly slip out of the conversation, leaving us all wondering where she’d gone. After looking around, we would find Nanna on her knees, crawling through the garden bed. She was scraping off bits of bark from the base of a gumtree—“It’s for my bark paintings,” she explained. For Nanna, this was normal.
Yet as an adult, I wonder how to integrate the playful person I knew with this scarred woman who suffered so much. Many others would become bitter given her lot. Yet Nell had an insatiable appetite for life. Her life resembled the gnarled yet glorious gumtrees she immortalised.
Perhaps in the title to her final collection of poems we can find the answer: Rainbows in the Tears. For when love looks through tears of pain, a vision of hope will emerge.
Of all the books that Nell had read, it’s no secret that her favourite was the Bible. In this “book of books” we find a recurring theme growing to a climax in the person of Christ, like the lapping of waves on a beach as they reach toward full tide. It is the pattern of grace, fall, and new grace.
This book begins with God’s grace as He paints a paradise and plants humanity in the midst. Yet our forebears overreached and fell, weeping as Eden became a wasteland. Yet God extended new grace, covering our shame in love and pointing to the day when all our sad stories will come untrue.
Or take Noah. Noah was the only righteous man among peers as people took pride in enacting every evil desire. So God judged the world in a flood, preserving Noah, his family, and a good deal of biodiversity in that floating safe haven. Grace had given way to fall. What would new grace look like? In Genesis 8-9 we read of the ark settling on Mount Ararat, this strange parade evacuating the vessel to see a land decimated by (super-) natural disaster. As they recalled what was, I’m sure that tears must have flooded their eyes. Yet precisely at this moment of despair, in the wake of immense suffering brought about by broken humanity, God gives us a sign. Whenever storm clouds gather, look up, for there you will see the rainbow—that even if life falls apart and flood waters rise, yet my new grace will preserve this beautiful creation in loving covenant. The rainbow is what love looks like when it refracts through this planet’s collective tears.
Nell was known as a woman of faith. But this was not “faith in faith” or some subjective impulse to trust beyond reason. Not at all. Instead, my Nanna trusted in the one true God, who was able to take the worst suffering, and the greatest injustice, and turn it into new grace and hope for all humanity. At the Bible’s climax we see God Himself in the person of Jesus, left high and dry as He opened His arms to embrace a world gone awry. Love is cruciform. And love is passionate, where passion literally means to “suffer with.” So Nanna had faith in the God with scars. When Nanna looked through tear stained eyes at the resurrected Christ, she knew all her sad stories would one day come untrue. And the result was art fuelled by hope.
This is how ‘imaginative Nanna’ and ‘suffering Nell’ fit together as one. Suffering can be redemptive: there are rainbows in the tears. In my playful grandmother I’ve seen the vitality of a passionate God. God has suffered much. And yet He is ever young, always crawling through the garden beds of this world alive with wonder. May we meet Him there?