True to form, when I begin our interview by asking him to share some reflections and observations about this season of his life, we somehow end up in the middle of a dissertation on the state of his … toenails. Here’s a sample — “My toenails are unbelievable! There aren’t a pair of clippers in the world that open wide enough to trim those hooves. They used to be clear, now they are colored. My grandchildren adore me, but they will not come anywhere near me if they can see my toenails.” He pauses for a beat. “That’s more than you really wanted to know, right?”
While I’m still laughing, Ken continues to expound. “Here’s what stage of life my wife and I are in — Diane has decided that it is very important to correct small details in each and every story I tell, which is, of course, so fascinating and helpful. Also slightly hard on our marriage, but she’s enjoying it. It drives me absolutely crazy, especially when she reminds me that Brian Williams lost his job by not paying attention to the details. So then I remind her that I’m a comedian, and comedians get to be a little looser with the details.”
On a slightly more serious note, Ken does have some thoughts about life and aging that he’d like to share. “Next year I will turn 70,” he tells me, in disbelief. “That just blows me away. I remember as a young person meeting 70-year-old people and thinking how sad it was that they would probably be dust within days.” I ask him what surprises him most about being almost 70, and with a smile, he says, “One thing that I did not see coming is that even if you enjoy really good health, which I do, there’s a lot of pain that accompanies growing older. I don’t say that in a morbid way, or just to be funny, but when you wake up in the morning or go to bed at night, there’s generally something somewhere that aches. When you get hurt it takes longer to heal, and somehow you get hurt almost every day.”
He continues. “But there are good surprises, too. One of the best parts of being my age is that I no longer feel the pressure of doing better tomorrow than I did yesterday. That’s not just true in the physical aspect of life, but in career performance and everything else. There comes a time in life when you can no longer realistically expect to be better than you were the day before, so you change your approach. Now I feel tremendous challenge and excitement about being the best I can be today. There are a lot of things that used to be important to me that are just no longer all that important. Priorities shift. All of my children, all of my grandchildren know the Lord and I can’t tell you how important that is to me. The fact that I will see these kids again, and that I know they have the strength of God to help them through life means more than I ever imagined. Mainly because — and this absolutely astounds me — the world isn’t really owned by 70-year-old people! It belongs to the young people; they are the ones that move it and shape it.”
One of the desires of Ken’s heart is to mentor and speak truth into the lives of his grandchildren’s generation. “I always tell them to start practicing critical thinking early. Don’t just absorb everything that comes your way — think it through. And it’s essential to have a knowledge of what the basics of the Bible are all about, so you can weigh things against it.” Then he adds, “But I will tell you, some things scare me a little about young people today. It frightens me that we have a generation that ignores history or doesn’t place a great deal of value in it. There is a disregard for absolutes. Their value is found in the moment, whatever gives pleasure for the moment.
I am concerned about a culture that takes pictures of itself constantly. The ‘selfie’ idea goes way beyond a digital snapshot; we live in a very self-absorbed culture and that scares me a little bit. But then I remind myself that throughout history every generation has been convinced that the world is coming to an end because of the attitudes of the young people, and God has been faithful through all of it. I have to remember that God is still in control; it’s still His hand that holds everything together, and that makes me stop feeling afraid.”
Though Ken has concerns about the younger generation, he also finds them a great source of hope and inspiration. “There is a remnant of young people right in the middle of that culture who are looking outside themselves,” says Ken. “They are using their creativity to bring hope and light to the world. They go on mission trips and are devoted to trying to help other people. I see highlights of this in some of my grandchildren, and it’s very encouraging. They feel burdened by the people around them that have less than they have. You know, I grew up in the church, but when I was a child my prayers were basically for all the sinners and for Grandpa and Grandma and the people closest to me. To hear a young person care enough to pray for all the hurting people in the world is inspiring.”
Ken and Diane live in a small rural town outside of Franklin, Tennessee, where the slower pace lends itself to putting down roots and getting to know your neighbors. Being a part of the community has become very important to Ken, though he will be the first to admit that he didn’t always feel that way. “I have spent all my life traveling and building a career at the expense of community,” he tells me. “My schedule made it impossible. There was no time for softball teams, no regular Bible studies, no regular church attendance.” He pauses then says, “I had a dream once that I had died — and the dream wasn’t a nightmare. Everything went fine except for the fact that at my funeral, Diane had to drag the casket down the steps by herself because she could not find enough people to carry it.
“At this point in my life, more than any other time, I’m finding that I truly need community and I’m having to consciously work at building it, because I didn’t while I was busy building a career. Just the other day I picked up the phone out of the blue and called Bill Gaither. I didn’t call him because I needed something; I just wanted to touch base and feel the connection with that whole group of people again. Community starts in that very tight group called your family, and it moves outward to a small number of people who will hopefully be there to carry the box. As it moves beyond that, it gets a little lighter in intensity, but it is still so important. We’re all fellow travelers on this journey, no matter what stage of life we are in — so give me your hand, and let’s do this together!”