Wisdom for the (Whiny and) Aged

Romans 12:1-8 – The 11th Sunday of Ordinary Time – for August 24, 2014

“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds…” (Romans 12:2)

I so enjoyed these words when Garrison Keillor shared them in one of his Lake Wobegon tales . . .

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.


10502483-standardKeillor didn’t write them! They didn’t first appear in a Prairie Home Companion radio drama!

Of course Paul wrote this encouragement to the Christian community in Rome. Indeed, long before I heard Keillor’s tale, Roman 12:2 faithful challenge inspired and intimidated me. Nonetheless, whenever I read Paul’s cautionary insights about conforming, I also revisit a fictional time in Minnesota’s Lake Wobegon . . .

In the yarn Keillor spun, every youth in the Lake Wobegon Lutheran Church’s confirmation class had to select a Bible verse that would be memorized and eventually read to the congregation. My fractured memory recalls that one boy chose John 11:35 . . . Jesus wept. Clever lad, since he only had to memorize two words. Another youth took Genesis 1:1, one of the most popular verses in the Bible: In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth. Didn’t everyone know the Bible’s opening line? A young woman named Lois was either less smart or more adventurous than her fellow students when she selected Romans 12:2.

After all, the apostle Paul’s thirty-four verbs and adjectives and more would be a chore to memorize. A few words were multisyllabic stumbling blocks. And there was this added factor: not only were they reading aloud their “favorite” verse, it would be written in frosting on a special confirmation cake baked for each youth.

Alas, Romans 12:2 wouldn’t fit on Lois’s cake. I don’t recall how many words made the top, but let’s try these two options:

Option #1Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.

Option #2 – Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.

El Greco, "St. Paul" (1606), Oil on canvas
El Greco, “St. Paul” (1606), Oil on canvas

Frankly, for Option #1, I’d willingly abandon perfect. I don’t know about Lois, but I’m far from perfect. And good and acceptable don’t feel like such a big loss either.

However, would Option #1 really fit on the cake?

Space-wise, Option #2 may be all that’s possible for Lois’s confirmation confection.

Yikes! In #2, God is cut from the cake.

But isn’t that what people of faith often do to each other? What if my discernment of God’s will is different than yours?

For example . . . in the current immigration controversy in the United States, my faith informs me—indeed, it transforms me—to despise placing walls on the border or turning children away from entry into this country. I discern that my Christian response leads me to emphasize welcoming others. The world may want to “conform” me with borders, but in the Realm of God, borders and walls and separating people are all wrong.

But what if you disagree with my heartfelt, God-inspired, Christ-like perspective about immigration? When there are two sides (or for that matter, ten sides) to a divisive cultural/political issue, who is cutting God’s will out of the world’s needs? It must be “you.” It’s certainly not me!

Let me suggest another example of how God is “cut from the cake.” Rather than another cursory glance at a cultural or political issue that divides us, I harshly stare at myself. I am aging. My hair is thinning. My bones are more brittle. My skin wrinkles. This current summer season has included long stretches of inactivity because of bad ankles getting worse and old knee injuries literally slowing me to a crawl.

How dare I fall apart!

According to calculations on Social Security’s website, I can “expect” to live until a few months shy of my 84th birthday. That figure is based on my current age of 62. Ah, twenty-two more years! Seems like a long time . . . and yet it doesn’t. I am vain. I still desire to do what I did at 20 or 30 or 50 . . . and I resent that I can’t. I fret about time running out, or simply running past me.

But aren’t I supposed to resent and resist aging? Aren’t I being transformational when shouting Dylan Thomas’s familiar lines of defiance?

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Or am I conforming when I rage against age? Paul’s passage doesn’t wonder about the renewing of the body, but the renewing of the mind. When I cling to physical youth, when I compare myself now to myself then, how much of discerning God’s will do I cut from my “cake?”

Let me pause here, and consider reactions to where I’ve wandered with Paul’s singular verse. I assume some readers will dismiss my musings as shallow. Who needs more whining about aging from a gray-bearded, white male Baby Boomer? Those a few years younger than me might scoff at my worries. Those a few years old will roll their eyes. Why not delve more into the immigration issue that was used earlier as an example? That’s far more theologically (and topically) relevant for our society’s “conforming” ways.

I’m sure it is.

But I live in my skin with my fears and my faults. Like Keillor’s fictional Lois, I claim Paul’s verse as a favorite. The verse may literally be too long to fit on a sweet cake, but it does fill my old salt of a soul. A faith that is honestly transformational demands that I’m careful with judging others in our diverse culture, and in our divisive politics. But a transformational faith also demands that I’m careful with how I judge myself. Yes, my body is “falling apart,” but what can I do today—and tomorrow—to transform my mind?

With respect to Dylan Thomas, I add to and transform his words: Please God, help me rage, rage against ignoring Your divine light of wisdom as I age.


(Keillor image from here; Painting of Paul from here; wisdom from here . . . oh, if only finding wisdom were as easy as creating a link!)


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  1. I remember hearing Keillor telling the same story during one of his “News From Lake Wobegon” sketches. I have been wanting to find a recording of this. Have you come across one online anywhere? He did this wonderful thing with Chaucer too I recall in the same sketch.

    1. William . . . thanks for reading. I first heard Keillor tell this on–wait, wait–a cassette tape back in the 1980s. I’ve always recalled it, but never heard it live and have never searched for it on the web. I would guess Keillor would try to be protective of his Wobegon tales and it may most easily be found on Keillor-sanctioned sites. It was a wonderful story!

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