Table Etiquette in Retirement
Scripture: Luke 14: 1, 7-14
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Kent and Amy asked me to talk with you today about how my recent retirement – it’s been two years next month – fits in with this summer’s theme of New Beginnings – Fresh Start, Second Chances”. Sounds like it should fit, I thought to myself – leaving a demanding job, having time on my hands for the people and things I love – so I said I would, and here I am.
I’ve been thinking a lot about what to say to you about this, and I started with today’s gospel reading from Luke – it’s from the lectionary, and I think it does connect to this notion of New Beginnings and to my own experience as a newly retired guy. Jesus was invited to eat at the house of the leader of the Pharisees, and the Pharisees were watching him, closely, to see which spot at that hierarchical banquet table, with its high and low seats, he would select. Luke doesn’t tell us if Jesus did select a spot, but instead tells us about Jesus’ advice, given through a parable, that we should select the lowest seat. Moreover, when we’re hosting a gathering, we’ll do well to invite the humble folks in the community rather than the rich and exalted ones. “For,” Jesus says, “all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” It’s a wonderful message about humility, but not only that, I see it as a message of proximity. Invite the poor to your own dinners, sit right next to them, Jesus says, and you will be blessed.
It reminds me of the powerful message of civil rights attorney, author and Alabama justice worker Bryan Stephenson. He took the cases of many prisoners of color in the criminal justice system deprived of their legal rights by inadequate or even absent legal counsel, and from this work, he told us in his book Just Mercy, written in 2014, of the power of proximity, saying “We can’t change the world if we are not willing to get close to those who are suffering”. And after years of working with these incarcerated persons, he also offered a message that he learned from this work, a message of hope for all of us: “Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.”
Stephenson’s example and insights are very moving to me, awakening this sense I’ve always had, sometimes vague and distant, other times clear, that my calling, what God put me here for, is to help others, and to do so with humility and empathy. I think it probably started from the example of my parents. They were both strong community and civic leaders in Denver, where I grew up. They continuously modeled service to others – Dad in business and community development (I’m proud to recall he was Colorado’s only bank president who was a Democrat) and Mom in education (she championed integration of the Denver schools in the face of tough controversy) and Hispanic women’s business development. (I proudly remember, at Mom’s memorial service, a leader from the Hispanic women’s business organization, called MiCasa, saying “Ginny Rockwell was the only white lady in Denver who understood us.”) Mom and Dad both passed away about 15 years ago, but I find myself ever more grateful for their example.
So what about this call? How and where has it led me?
My life’s work path, after college, started in journalism in Birmingham AL in 1973, and moved from there through rewarding public work with the City of Birmingham, and that led me up to Harvard for a City Planning masters degree…which somehow led to commercial real estate lending. That lasted for some 15 years at a Boston bank, where, doing mostly suburban office, hotel and apartment construction loans, I learned a whole lot about entrepreneurship, about financial deal structuring and risk analysis. But after a while, that inner voice, wondering if I’d abandoned my call, gradually grew too loud to ignore any longer. So I took a job with a community land trust in the Dudley Street neighborhood of Roxbury, which really brought me face to face with injustice and the dignity of those working to overcome it. From there, eventually my path led in 1995, to my dream job – financing affordable housing using bank money – almost $1.4B of it -- mandated to my agency by a special affordable housing banking law passed in 1990 by the state legislature. Thank you, legislature! What timing for a guy trying to find his calling in the harsh world of finance. God provides.
So I stayed in this job – at an agency called the Massachusetts Housing Partnership – for about 27 years, first as a loan officer and then, for the last 20 of those years, as leader of a team of four lending officers. Throughout, I was surrounded by smart, caring colleagues and housing developers devoted to doing their part to get excellent quality affordable rental housing built or renovated. Throughout, I was always challenged – affordable housing finance can be bafflingly complex -- constantly looking for new ways of making our financing better fit the needs of these projects, and discovering new innovations in areas like supportive housing for persons with special needs, or techniques for green building and healthy housing.
Simply put, I lucked out. There are probably other paths I could have found to pursue some version of my calling, but that Massachusetts Housing Partnership job really fit my skills and preferences. And, it brought me closer to the lives of those finding their way into the housing developments we financed. We’d typically see 1,000 to 2,000 income-eligible applicants for a newly built affordable development of, say, 50 units – terrible odds. But for the ones who got through the lotteries and into units, we’d hear them speak at ribbon-cuttings of how truly life-changing their new homes were for them, how it stabilized so much in their lives after years of being insecurely housed or even homeless. For them, that new home let them build new lives. For me, as a witness, it gave me a little of that proximity Jesus is talking about.
And, it must be said, it provided a decent living, helping me join Debra in raising our wonderful family. I worked hard, I think I earned my way, but I have always felt deeply grateful for this opportunity.
There is another really important piece here, and that is this church. We joined the United Parish in the mid 1990s, where Deb and I have raised our two now-grown children from early-grade Sunday school right up through the teenage pilgrimage program something like what our current teens did last week. Throughout this time, I have found such support at this church for honestly evaluating my faith, such a safe but also provocative home urging me to keep listening to my call, and such a motivating jumping-off point for service, for doing what I can to transform the tables out there from places of unjust hierarchies to places of fairness and equal opportunity. I am thankful every day for this United Parish community.
So then, almost two years ago now, I retired. And it’s true, retirement, in allowing you to step away from the demands of a title and a paycheck, gives you the opportunity to spend more time with family, to find new avenues of personal growth, to take better care of your body, to travel, take a hike, read a book, or just sit back and relax your tired mind. To varying degrees, I’ve done these things, but I must confess, my path upon retirement has led me, as my family reminds me from time to time, into what is probably a too busy schedule. It’s early yet, I’m only two years into this new phase of my life, and clearly I’m still figuring out the right balance. So, for me so far, retirement hasn’t been this sudden plunge into leisure – an image which actually, in my years leading up to retirement, made me a bit nervous, as I sometimes wondered what would I do with all this free time?
So what has my retirement been like? Has it been a new beginning? Well, God put something into my hands immediately, as I had to take care of the estate (with the help of many in the congregation) of a beloved parishioner who passed away in the same month I retired. Beyond that, though, I did follow my call, I think. And I did it by staying involved with affordable housing, but this time I did so by getting involved with two aspects of the housing problem that were new to me, and different from my years in finance.
One is political organizing for affordable housing. Partly through my new place with the Stretching Into Justice Ministry Team, partly through our Parish’s new membership in the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization, and partly through joining into some housing advocacy in our home city of Newton, I have been trying my hand at affecting housing policy at the local and state levels. It’s complicated, it’s messy, loaded with confusing choices and unclear answers; in some ways, this work is much harder, I think, than my familiar task of making good loans. Probably because I was a bit fearful of that topsy-turvy world and because I felt housing day and night would just be exhausting, I stayed away from the political side of affordable housing during my work years. But now, with time to educate myself about the issues, to take a seat next to those constantly working to improve things, to listen to and learn from others, I find this challenge exciting and worth taking on.
The other is helping individuals and their housing needs. From connections at this church and other venues, I have had the opportunity to meet folks who are understandably overwhelmed by how daunting it is to find, apply for, and stay in decent housing settings that they can afford. This is also a new experience for me, getting me involved deeply, one on one, with one of the most important parts of peoples’ lives – their homes. It teaches me a whole lot about how this messy affordable housing system works and doesn’t work, and what these affordable housing programs which I’ve worked with on the financing side, feel like on the receiving end. It gives me new friends, deeper connections with existing friends, with all the benefits that brings.
Both these things require time, meetings, writing things up, making calls. Whoosh, sounds like my life on the job. But there is a difference, a difference that does amount to something of a new beginning, and brings back to mind the banquet table.
As rewarding as my MHP job was, it still put me in a constant scramble for my own seat at the table; not quite the same as the Pharisees’ table, but a table with some similarities -- its own limited seats for those exalted of us selected, in the competitive setting that is affordable housing finance, for a piece of the deal. Yes, this is a competitive world; there are lots of folks with money – banks, mortgage companies, other state agencies – who were always pursuing the same opportunities I was. While the chase was stimulating, and the successes sweet, I am happy to put this struggle behind me.
But more than that, I can now choose what table I want to sit at, and what seat I want at that table. I can select whom to invite to sit with me, or whom to sit next to. Sometimes they are kindred spirits working toward a common housing policy outcome, sometimes they are people who don’t see things my way but are worth hearing out. Sometimes they are people who are enduring things unfair, confusing, painful, or unaffordable, and who are seeking my help. In all cases, it is my job, my challenge, my opportunity, I think, to choose my tables and my table-mates with an open mind, and with empathy, a listening ear, a sense of humor, and gratefulness for new relationships. Bryan Stephenson was right to raise up the importance of proximity, of getting close to those who are suffering, as was Jesus to exhort us to sit with the humble. Retirement has shown me that when you do those things, you find that it leads to a calming of the soul and increased understanding.
So, as I’ve said, this new beginning of a retired life is still a new thing for me. I have lots to figure out about it, and about getting things into the right balance. But now I do have time to listen for God’s message, to discern God’s call, to listen for it in myself and in the joys and sufferings of others, in the lessons and valued relationships coming my way here at the United Parish. Thank you, members and friends of this church, for your many accompaniments to my journey before and after retirement, and thank you for listening today.