National Older Adult Conference of the Church of the Brethren
Lake Junaluska, N.C. — Sept. 7-11, 2009
Sept. 11, 2009
The three keynote speakers at National Older Adult Conference 2009 each addressed the conference theme as they talked about connections of legacies and wisdom. Speaking on three different mornings, each speaker, however, had a very different point of view to offer to the older adult audience:
Rachael Freed, founder of Life-Legacies and author of the book “Women’s Lives, Women’s Legacies,” explained her work to reclaim the ancient tradition of the ethical will or legacy letter.
David Waas, a Church of the Brethren member and emeritus professor of history at Manchester College in North Manchester, Ind., challenged the audience to consider what legacy their generation in the church will leave, in terms of the influence of Christianity on the state.
Michael McKeever, a Church of the Brethren member from Elgin, Ill., who teaches at Judson University with a specialty on the Gospels, connected wisdom “at the crossroads” with life journeys of reconciliation.
Rachael Freed proposed the tradition of the legacy letter as a helpful tool for older adults to pass on a legacy of faith to succeeding generations. An ethical will or legacy letter is “one of the examples of weaving the old to meet the needs in the new world,” she said.
The tradition comes straight from Genesis 49, which Freed described as the story of Jacob on his deathbed offering blessings “along with recriminations and instructions” to his sons.
After the Israelites’ exile to Babylon, the rabbis in their struggle to find ways to maintain the faith used this story as a template for Jewish men to communicate the family legacy. Freed explained that the tradition survives in modern Jewish custom as a way to prepare spiritually for the high holy days.
Now, she is making a reinterpretation of this patriarchal tradition into her life’s work, offering the legacy letter as a “healing tool” for women’s groups and others who may be considered on the edge of society, such as prison inmates. She has started “legacy circles” in her hometown of Minneapolis, with a focus on “empowering women to share their wisdom for future generations.”
The idea of a legacy letter is quite simple: A letter (or another form of communication) that a person writes to children or grandchildren or other descendants, in order to impart life lessons, values, meaningful stories, and blessings.
Freed emphasized the importance of legacy letters offering blessings for the next generations. The family struggles in Genesis illustrate that “dire results” come when people do not receive such blessings, she noted. She offered the following blessing to the NOAC participants, quoted here in part, as she closed her session:
“May this time in your life as elders be a time of wonder, of gratitude, of renewal, of connection, and contribution…. Your wisdom and blessing are shared in ways you can’t ever imagine….”
David Waas addressed connections between the legacy of Christianity and what the faith–particularly the Brethren way of following Jesus–may have to say to the nation-state. “We are the receivers of rich legacies, and we are the conduit of legacies,” he said. Bringing to mind stories told of Brethren leaders of past generations, he asked participants at the 2009 NOAC, “What will the next book be, when you and I are the subjects?” and “What will be said about how we witnessed to our time?”
He explained that these questions needed to be asked from the point of view of two identities, shared by most of those present: as a member of the Church of the Brethren, and as an American. “You and I have helped fashion not only our church,” he told the NOAC audience, “but you and I helped fashion our nation…. It’s on our watch and we carry a responsibility.”
Waas traced a historical shift in the Church of the Brethren from opposition to the state, at the beginning of the Brethren movement, to a focus on how to be a good citizen, as the church moved into the mid-twentieth century. Then he traced the development of a number of current crises in the United States: the economy, health care, the prison population, the homicide rate, and gun violence. “While we are here today, the 9th of September, 80 people will be shot by guns in homicides,” he said.
But the “crisis we never seem to be able to talk about,” he said, is the movement of military power to center stage in the United States. “That has happened in our lifetime. A shift to massive, ever-present military strength…. A tectonic shift in our society, to a different kind of nation that often we do not recognize.” Military might “has become a defining factor” of the United States, and of who Americans are in the world, he said. As a result, there is a crisis of confidence in the democratic leadership of the country, he said, along with a moral crisis in which even the legitimacy of torture can be debated by Americans.
Waas called on NOAC participants to recognize the alternative legacy that followers of Christ may offer to a militarized nation. “We should adopt and reinvigorate the Christian vision to call the state to its highest ideals,” he said. “We must work as never before to advocate for peace. Our mission is to speak truth to power…. We have to have the courage to challenge the sacred cow of the military.”
“You and I are citizens of a great land and we carry the mantle of a great heritage, a rich Brethren heritage which our nation needs,” Waas concluded.
Michael McKeever took NOAC “on the road,” tying together biblical themes of people on the move with themes from film and popular culture to talk about how a life journey may lead to reconciliation. McKeever has taught a course titled “Luke and the American Road Movie” (the subject of an upcoming book) and is the founder and director of a film series at Judson University called “Reel Conversations.”
Starting with the image of Lady Wisdom in Proverbs–where the wisdom of God is imagined as a woman who takes her stand at the crossroads in the midst of the people–McKeever then moved on to discuss three parables Jesus tells in Luke 15 about God’s search for the lost.
He compared these stories of the lost sheep, lost coin, and the prodigal son to a 1999 film in the American road movie genre, “The Straight Story,” directed by David Lynch. The film tells the true story of an elderly man named Alvin Straight, who rides his lawnmower from Iowa to Wisconsin in order to make amends with his ailing brother before he dies.
Christians are portrayed as “on the road” as “followers of the way” in the New Testament, McKeever reminded his audience. Just as Americans often identify with the Hollywood portrayal of “a restless people who go out on the road to find ourselves,” he said.
The search for what has been lost–whether it is a sheep or coin, a son or a family relationship, or in the case of NOAC participants perhaps a life legacy–takes “active and concerned effort,” McKeever noted.
“Perhaps salvation in Luke is about being found,” he said. Putting so much hard work into seeking what has been lost may seem foolish in the eyes of the world, but it is the foolishness of God, McKeever told the NOAC audience. And for the wise seeker, “giving up is not an option.”
— Frank Ramirez, pastor of Everett (Pa.) Church of the Brethren, and Cheryl Brumbaugh-Cayford, director of News Services for the Church of the Brethren, contributed to this report.