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AGING WELL: Retired UM clergyman still hears Call of God Missy Buchanan, Jul 13, 2011
By Missy Buchanan Special Contributor
I first met the Rev. Wally Chappell at his quaint home in Dallas. The 91-year-old retired United Methodist minister politely ushered me to the dining room table which currently serves as a command center for marketing his new book, The Call of God: Selected Sermons (AuthorHouse 2011). On the table there are padded envelopes, promotional postcards and stamps. Boxes of books are stacked in the corner of the room.
As I grab my pen and open my notebook, I ask Wally to share something he’s learned about aging. He grows quiet for a moment before speaking. “When you get older, you need a mission, a project,” he says, articulating each word with great eloquence. Having just finished reading Wally’s book of sermons, I was confident that Wally had found his late-in-life mission.
Actually the book was not something that Wally had ever intended to pursue. It was birthed out of a relentless urging of friends at First United Methodist Church of Dallas, where Wally served as an associate pastor for more than 12 years before finally retiring at age 87. The persistent group of friends believed that Wally’s sermons and Sunday school lessons held important truths for people of all ages.
Wally is not shy about describing himself as a progressive Christian with a particular concern about how fundamentalist attitudes have skewed people’s understanding of Jesus. Described by many as a renaissance man, Wally says the book’s sermons reveal faith on the downhill side of the scientific revolution, a topic that is especially close to his heart.
Wally’s father, Frank Chappell, had been an engineer who helped design the Cotton Bowl and most of the postwar buildings at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. Sharing his father’s interest in science, Wally completed an engineering degree from Rice University in Houston, and later worked at Union Carbide before enrolling at Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University in Dallas in 1945.
When I ask Wally what he would most like readers to know about his book, he responds that it is a direct reflection of his own journey. He says he is frustrated by much of what he sees and hears masquerading as Christianity these days. He is anxious for readers to understand that Jesus of Nazareth is very relevant to life today.
I am especially intrigued by the fact that all of the book’s sermons and lessons were written when Wally was 75 or older. There are interesting titles like “The New Physics of Prayer” and “Reflection on Dirty Feet.” But it is something that Wally says in our conversation that really caught my attention. “The older I get, the more comfortable I am with uncertainty.”
Wally’s beloved wife of 63 years, Stell, died in 2009 at the age of 85. He credits meditation and journaling for helping him through the dark days that followed her death. As the discussion turns to his thoughts about growing old, Wally lightens the mood with a bit of dry humor. “It’s true what they say about aging. It’s not for sissies. Nobody gets out alive.”
Then Wally leans forward and shares a deeper, spiritual perspective. “Aging is full of surprises. There are quiet joys, fresh loves and new opportunities. But you must refuse to become a hermit.”
Later as I walk down the sidewalk to my car, Wally’s words echo in my mind. Find your mission, live fully for today, and don’t allow yourself to become a hermit. That, I’m thinking, is wisdom for living well at any age.
Ms. Buchanan, a member of FUMC Rockwall, Texas, is the author of several books, including Don’t Write My Obituary Just Yet: Inspiring Faith Stories for Older Adults (Upper Room Books). Mr. Chappell’s book The Call of God: Selected Sermons is available at www.authorhouse.com, or 1-888-280-7715.