I don't know the new President at Gordon College, D. Michael Lindsay, but after reading an interview with him in Books and Culture, I think Gordon's future is in good hands. He's a bright, articulate scholar, and blessed, or so it seems from the interview, with wisdom, an attribute only tangentially related to any of the former. Seems to me the man has learned how to read the tea leaves lining up on the table before him.
He came to the position from Rice University, where his work had brought him wide respected as a sociologist. But Gordon College people tapped him on the shoulder and gave him sufficient reason to believe they felt he would make a really fine college president. He says he thought about it for some time, steered closer and closer to moving from Texas to the greater Boston area, but didn't really make up his mind until his cousin was killed in a car accident, his cousin and close friend.
Here's what he says in the interview.
As I was driving home from that funeral, I reflected on his life and began to think. I wondered what he [his cousin] was going to buy his kids for Christmas. It was early November, and I figured he probably had some ideas in mind; I wondered when he thought his next promotion might come at work and what that might look like; and I wondered what he thought he might do in ten to fifteen years. And in that moment, I realized that we are not promised tomorrow.Funerals are quality teachers. A friend of mine whose father was a preacher told me how he'd once told her that funerals were his favorite time to preach because he didn't have to--all he had to do is read Psalm 90 with death in the room and he and the Word met rapt attention.
But the stunning line in the story--or so it seems to me--is "we are not promised tomorrows." I've heard it said in a thousand ways, from "make hay whilst the sun shines" to Samuel Johnson's memorable "Nothing focuses the mind like a hanging." Every European cathedral is draped somewhere with a skull or two or a skeleton, a reminder of death, and Paul Simon's latest album is laced with images of his and our own demise--memento mori.
So, honestly, there's nothing new in Lindsay's on-my-way-back-from-the-funeral epiphany, but it was an epiphany and epiphanies are nothing to shake a stick at. Like grace, they can't be explained or demonstrated even though we try; you can only really experience them. No catechism teaches love; it's a matter of show, don't tell.
"We are not promised tomorrows" was the jolt he needed, he says, to take the job. That may not be the case in your life or mine--my own sudden realization that we aren't promised tomorrows doesn't necessarily argue for me to do something I've never done--that it's time to bungee jump or create a winery, or build a house, for that matter. That there are no promises about tomorrow doesn't lengthen or shorten a bucket list.
It seems to me that believing, truly, that "we are not promised tomorrows" answers no questions but shapes a state of mind that, oddly enough, I really respect in a young man who's just become a college president. Things are changing in higher education--no doubt. D. Micheal Lindsay must deal with tomorrows--it's a requirement of the office.
But if that little story he tells about reaching a fork in the road when coming back from a funeral of a friend is any indication, I think Gordon College is in very good hands.
"We are not promised tomorrows" is really a way of life, a way of living.
And as if that weren't enough, let me just add this morning's poem from Writers Almanac, Billy Collins's choice which covers the same ground.
by Lawrence Raab
For a long time I was sure
it should be "Jumping Jack Flash," then
the adagio from Schubert's C major Quintet,
but right now I want Oscar Peterson's
"You Look Good to Me." That's my request.
Play it at the end of the service,
after my friends have spoken.
I don't believe I'll be listening in,
but sitting here I'm imagining
you could be feeling what I'd like to feel—
defiance from the Stones, grief
and resignation with Schubert, but now
Peterson and Ray Brown are making
the moment sound like some kind
of release. Sad enough
at first, but doesn't it slide into
tapping your feet, then clapping
your hands, maybe standing up
in that shadowy hall in Paris
in the late sixties when this was recorded,
getting up and dancing
as I would not have done,
and being dead, cannot, but might
wish for you, who would then
understand what a poem—or perhaps only
the making of a poem, just that moment
when it starts, when so much
is still possible—
has allowed me to feel.
Happy to be there. Carried away.
Jesus isn't in the poem, but then he wasn't on the highway after the funeral either. But that doesn't mean he wasn't or isn't, between the lines.
I still think it's a way of life.