Rev. Bruce G. Epperly, PhD
One of the iconic scenes regularly enacted in the novel and televised versions of Agatha Christie’s “Hercule Poirot” involves Poirot pointing to his head and saying: “It is the brain, the little grey cells on which one must rely. One must seek the truth within—not without.” Elsewhere, the detective notes that “in the little grey cells of the brain lie the solution to every mystery.”
One of the keys to creative aging involves attending to our “little grey cells” and keeping our minds alive and stimulated. The mind is one of those “use it or lose it” organs, whether you are a retired eighty-year-old or an eight-year-old on summer break. That’s one of the reasons that each summer, I create an informal learning time with my two grandchildren, reading books and watching movies and documentaries that exercise their minds. I am reminded of Plato’s words that in the quest for spiritual balance, you must exercise your body if you focus on the mind and focus on the mind if you are exercising the body.
Ministry involves the mind as well as the heart. We may spend forty-five weeks a year working on sermons and writing the equivalent of a book each year. Often sermon-writing is the primary intellectual stimulation for good preachers, although it is important to keep up on the latest theology, social trends, and New York Times bestsellers. Most solo or senior pastors write the equivalent of a 200-page book each year. It is important not to let your mind go fallow in retirement. Maintaining an active intellectual life not only stimulates the brain and promotes brain health, but it also keeps us interested and interesting!
There are many ways to keep the little grey cells alive. My wife Kate, a retired pastor, works on jigsaw puzzles and word games on her iPad. We both watch nature programs with our grandchildren, try to get to the museums on the Washington D.C. Mall, and travel. Scores of my retired Facebook friends delight in Wordle and celebrate their scores on social media. A number of my pastor friends belong to book groups. I sit in on two book groups, not as theologian or expert, but member who enjoys reading new books along with snacks and sometimes cocktails. Of course, my close friends humorously ask me, “Bruce, how many books have you written this week?” knowing that I’m always working on one or two book projects simultaneously. A number of my friends are working on memoirs, with the possibility of self-publishing as a gift to their grandchildren.
This spring, I returned to regular preaching and ministry as half-time Bridge Pastor/Head of Staff at a Washington D.C.-area church. I felt called to serve. Soon, I realized that I was receiving as much as I gave. I hadn’t realized that I needed the stimulation of a place to go for a few hours three days a week and the regular opportunity to preach and write and lead liturgy. When my term ends in August, I will look for another stimulating activity that takes me away from home an afternoon or two a week. I enjoy my own company and spend a good deal of time writing and studying, but the external stimulus energized every aspect of my life.
I felt renewed energetically and stimulated in my writing. I have found that regularly leading a Bible study on zoom for the congregation I attend provides another structure along with the two classes yearly I teach at Wesley Theological Seminary.
The grey cells, of course, are not purely intellectual. This year, I have been reading about reparations and that has led me to consider how I might support economic equality among the descendants of slaves and the children of victims of Jim Crow, redlining, and inequalities in the GI bill and FHA. Like many retirees, I spend time advocating for issues related to justice and human rights. This means picking up the phone and going to meetings, and also study.
A spiritual director once counseled, “Pray as you can, not as you can’t.” The same applies to the grey cells: “Learn as you can, not as you can’t.” Find what delights you, what challenges you, what is novel and foreign, what energizes you, and do it!
Consider, as you ponder the little grey cells, the current state of your intellectual stimulation: Are you lively or bored intellectually? In a rut or surprised by new ideas? What types of intellectual activity excite you? What types fully exercise your intellectual muscles? Are you part of a book group or do you regularly participate in intellectually stimulating activities (lectures, visits to museums, travel)? What new activity beckons you?
You can grow, as Jesus did, in wisdom and stature in every season of life. You can delight in learning and exploring new possibilities with the same thrill as you did as a child or college student. Remember the little grey cells!