I’m in a quandary. At almost 62 years old, that is not the most comfortable place to be. I’ve recently finished a biography of Paul Newman. I was really interested in, however, the story of his son, Scott, who died of a drug overdose after years of trying to live up unsuccessfully to his role as the only son of Paul Newman. Who could, really? Everyone expected him to have the same looks, the same acting ability, the same charm. But Scott was a different person, of course. Even Paul’s daughters felt the burden of their dad’s fame. They said it was hard finding a boyfriend who was not intimidated by their father, and even their female friends found themselves flirting with the handsome Mr. Newman, even as he got older and older. It’s hard to be born into fame and fortune.
My sister Joy and I were not born into fame or fortune. We were born into a middle-class family in Tennessee. Our parents were not politicians or actors or people whose names you would read in the gossip column of the newspaper. However, our father made his mark on the world by writing letters during the Civil Rights movement to encourage those on the front lines championing justice who were the recipients of so much hate and animosity, and sometimes penning letters to businesses to every so kindly encourage them to change policies (as in, it’s time to let go of the separate white/Negro drinking fountains). Letter by letter, he wrote his words of love and tolerance, and letter by letter those recipients were warmed, inspired, and sometimes challenged by his witness as a white Christian Southern man who had ideals and wanted to make the world a better place. Dad saved most of these letters, and Joy recently wrote a play called “Letter Man” which brought everything together; the play was staged in Memphis this summer.
As she was working on compiling these letters into a play, Joy and I held many conversations over the phone on the impact these letters were having on us. Both of us are way past the age where our dad started his ministry of public service as a lone agent speaking in the wilderness for love and tolerance and social change. Re-reading the letters inevitably made us question ourselves as to what we have done with our own lives. When you grow up with a parent whose life embodied Jesus in so many ways, how do you deal with that? How can you live up to that legacy? Everything we have done seems so inadequate in the shadow of his accomplishments and sacrifices.
I recently read an excerpt from a book by David Brooks titled “The Road to Character.” Here is what he says: “In this method, you don’t ask, What do I want from life? You ask a different set of questions: What does life want from me? What are my circumstances calling me to do? In this scheme of things we don’t create our lives; we are summoned by life. The important answers are not found inside, they are found outside. This perspective begins not within the autonomous self, but with the concrete circumstances in which you happen to be embedded. This perspective begins with an awareness that the world existed long before you and will last long after you, and that in the brief span of your life you have been thrown by fate, by history, by chance, by evolution, or by God into a specific place with specific problems and needs. Your job is to figure certain things out: What does this environment need in order to be made whole? What is it that needs repair? What tasks are lying around waiting to be performed? As the novelist Frederick Buechner put it, ‘At what points do my talents and deep gladness meet the world’s deep need?’”
This is the quandary. Dad served his life’s purpose during a great upheaval in this country. He felt in his soul he knew exactly what he was called to do. Indeed, he considered it his calling. No question about that.
But each generation has to respond to its own times. I was reminded of the Gettysburg Address, where Lincoln started out with the famous “Fourscore and seven years ago,” recalling the birth of the nation, then goes on to say “Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived, and so dedicated, can long endure.” In just a couple of sentences, he takes the listeners all the way up the road from the founding of the nation, from which by this time they were so removed, to their current situation. He was saying, yes, we can remember the past, we MUST remember the past, but we are called to act in the present.
So, using a phrase which used to be popular, “What would Jesus do?” - Joy and I ask, “What would our dad Ensley do?” Indeed - he lived in a different era. He typed his letters out on a typewriter, key by key, folded them up, inserted them into envelopes, addressed them, stamped them, and sent them on their way. He wrote on a one-to-one, from sender to recipient. The world has changed now. How would he have handled Facebook, where his passionate pleas may have been met with volatile response from friends and even strangers? What would have been his responses to the endless social media posts which would have saddened his heart? Would he have been overwhelmed with the job at hand? We know he would have responded with love, as that is the only way he could, but exactly how? As he was called to answer to his time in history, so are we called to answer to our time. We feel the urgency to bring attention and energy to injustice in the many ways our dad did. Racial tensions have escalated and his vision of a world of racial equality still has not materialized. And for our generation, there are additional battles to fight on other lines of social change as well. But how? When news goes around the world faster than lightning, and opinions are more numerous than stars in the heavens, when just watching the news makes your heart break, when the senseless killings just don’t seem to stop and violence and hate and fear seems to crown the days - what are we called to do? What are we called to say? How are we called to act? What is our “calling”?
It’s a world of questions waiting for answers. When you examine life in your 60s, the hourglass has lots more sand on the bottom than on the top. The urgency is clear. Time seems short. I am just one person. It all seems so overwhelming. Sometimes I call my friends because, instead of being an encourager, I seem to need the encouragement myself. Joy and I have said many times recently how we wished Dad were here to guide us, to show us the way that we can spread love and be active fighters for justice and tolerance in the here and now.
No, we didn’t have a famous father who was listed in Forbes or People magazine. But he was certainly a man hard to live up to. May we all find our “calling” in this life - and be faithful to it. So help us God.