Even at 81, there’s work to be done

On All Hallows Eve, I celebrate my 81st birthday. In addition to enjoying pumpkin pie, which is part of our family’s tradition for the day, I will be thinking about my writing projects for this next year. Two books I’ve read in recent weeks will serve as models.

The first is Bernard Lewis’s Notes on a Century: Reflections of a Middle East Historian. As I began reading this book, my first response was surprise that he was publishing this interesting volume when he was 95 years old. Although he has been retired for a quarter of a century, he has continued to be an active scholar, consultant, and writer. By his example, Lewis encourages all of us who are moving into the late decades of life to keep on doing the work that is important to us.

Lewis also provides a model for how to do our work. He calls it “closing down one’s files.” His most productive period of publishing books was after retirement. He could do this, he explained, because over the years he had kept files on various topics that interested him. Then, when he had control over his working schedule, he gathered these notes together, finished up research as needed, and new books were the result.

Although my files are much skimpier than Lewis’s must have been, I do have half a dozen half-finished projects, some of which I hope to complete. Among them are a history of the Consultation on Church Union, a history of First Christian Church in Portland, Oregon, and a book on bicycling past seventy.

Another file that needs to be closed is a memoir based on my career as a scholar and teacher in the field of Christian worship. Here Lewis provides a model that helps me think about the project. The key words in the title of his memoir are notes and reflections. Although he gives us a reasonably complete scenario of the major events in his life, the book is not an autobiography nor is it a recounting of his personal and family history.

Rather, Lewis provides an orderly account of how he came to be a middle east historian and  then unfolds, in a systematic manner how his public career and scholarly investigations developed over a period of some eight decades. This account is interrupted from time to time by his reflections on specific issues, such as the character of historical research and the differences between Islam and Christianity.

This interaction of professional autobiography and interpretation will show me the way to improve and complete the theological memoir that now sits half-finished on my shelf.

The second book that is helping me think about my work during this next year is Ziauddin Sardar’s Reading the Qur’an: The Contemporary Relevance of the Sacred Text of Islam. The book has 52 chapters, which signals its origin as a year-long series of weekly blogs published by a major news outlet in the United Kingdom. Since my blog is self-directed, without editorial oversight or the disciplines and incentives provided by a commissioned assignment, my writing on this blog won’t be so tightly focused.

I have other interests in addition to a systematic unfolding of how I understand the Christian faith in our time. For example, I plan to publish occasional research briefs based on other projects I’m engaged in, and I will continue to comment on current issues in the field of religious studies. I am intrigued, however, by the idea of explaining how I see things now in a continuing series of short, focused, and connected columns. When they come, I’ll call attention to what they are.

Will anybody care enough about what I think about these matters to read my blog? The realistic answer: maybe, but at best only a few.

I’ll do it anyway, because putting my thoughts down on paper with an “ink pen,” which is how many of my blogs begin, is still a satisfying experience, a way to think things through and to pray about them as I write. Transcribing them into digital form is much more satisfying than what I used to do, which was pile up these hand-written notes—stacks and stacks of half sheets of paper with unfinished thoughts—and then throw them away. Now I can push the “publish” button, and out they go into the wide world.

Every now and then someone comments online, by pen and ink or phone, and sometimes face-to-face. The conversation keeps us going in friendship and in life. It helps me follow the injunction at the close of Psalm 90:

“So teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.”

Note: The photo at the top shows me on the day my life as a scholar began, my first day of school, September 7, 1937. A more recent photo below.

10 Responses to Even at 81, there’s work to be done

  1. eirenetheou says:

    Reading this word from you makes my heart glad. i envy your energy and admire your wisdom. You have come to a place where you may think freely and write carefully, even as you continue to learn. i hope for many good words from you.

    God’s Peace to you.


  2. Bob Cornwall says:


    First of all — happy birthday. Enjoy your Halloween treat!

    Second, continue the work — for it enriches us all.

  3. Dave says:

    Keith, you are one of a few who have a few years on me and have encouraged my writing by both voice and writing themselves. I enjoy thinking I might write, one day, on some of the issues/ideas I keep piling up while also exploring new edges (Thanks for the example!). I look forward to your blog this year and your thoughts on Sardar’s book (I’m intrigued and will have to put it on my reading list).

    • Dave, you are one of my regular readers, and people like you help me keep on writing. Thanks for the encouragement. I enjoy your photos and the short comments about your work with people, flora, and fauna. You help me experience a way of life that is very different from mine in the city. I probably won’t write any more about Sardar, but I discussed him in a couple of blogs earlier in the summer.

  4. Klaus Schreiber says:

    Happy birthday and keep on riding and writing.
    Sorry, we missed you on Rt 66, but hope to see you next year on another PAC ride.

    • Klaus, how nice to hear from you! I regretted very much the need to withdraw from the Route 66 tour. One reason I was looking forward to the ride was the fact that you were also registered to do it. I am planning on week two of Desert Camp this year, the Border Towns ride. By choosing carefully, I hope to continue PACTour until I’m 85. The historic hotels ride, about 50-60 miles a day, should still be possible at that point. I’m encouraged in my riding by people like you who are reasonably close to the same age. We need to help one another stay motivated. Keith

  5. arloduba says:

    Happy Birthday, Keith. Yes, I too am going strong. Three articles at 81, in Worship, in Worship, Theology Today and Call to Worship. And now at 82 my book, Presbyterian Worship in the Twentieth Century with a Focus on the Book of Common Worship was published by OSL Publications. Now we are working on the worship material for the next Presbyterian Hymnal that will come out in the fall of 2013.I am writing a piece that is to go along with that liturgy. And on Nov. 12, I turn into my 83rd year.
    Doreen and I send our best wishes to you and Billie.Thanks for your regular contributions on WordPress. I have appreciated your take on Sardar and have it on my “next” list option when I finish this piece, though a book on sacramental ministry now fills two quite thick file folders. Godspeed.

    • Arlo, it is reassuring to know that friends and colleagues are continuing to work in constructive and fulfilling ways. I will look for your recent articles next week during a visit to the CTS library and will order your new book. Our best to you and Doreen. Keith

  6. Gene Hill says:

    Happy “18th,” Keith!

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