Not All Become Elders: The Spiritual Terrain of Aging

by | Apr 26, 2017


I begin with a word of thanks to the leaders at Seabury Services for organizing this annual event and a hearty welcome to our friends of the United Church of Christ with whom we are blessed to share this celebration. Thanks, as well, to congregational leaders who have nominated this year’s honorees, and, finally, let me congratulate the honorees themselves. We are grateful beyond measure for your faithfulness in ministry.  

I appreciate the opportunity to reflect with you on matters of real importance–of increasing importance for me, personally, and as your bishop, as I take stock of the spiritual concerns in our common life.

Let me begin with a text, taken from Psalm 90:

Lord you have been our refuge from one generation to another.
Before the mountains were brought forth, or the land and the earth were born,
from age to age, you are God.
You turn us back to dust and say, “Go back, O child of earth.
For a thousand years in your sight are like yesterday when it is past
and a like watch in the night.
The span of our life is seventy years, perhaps in strength even eighty.
Yet the sum of them is but labor and sorrow,
for they pass away quickly and we are gone.
So teach us to number our days,
that we may set our hearts to wisdom.
How do we go about setting our hearts to wisdom?

Two vignettes to set the stage:

The first is from a conversation I heard recently between a radio journalist I admire, Krista Tippett, and Richard Rohr, a 73 year-old Franciscan priest, also worthy of great admiration. Rohr is the author of many books including one entitled, Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life.

Krista Tippett began an exchange by saying:

There is a true progression of life that comes with age, which is about an accumulation of experience, but this is not necessarily chronological. Everybody doesn’t become an elder. Some people just get old. It’s also possible to be old and childish. And there’s an important swath of the young among us who are, even at a young age, seeking a fuller and farther vision of who they want to be that is distinct from what they want to do.

Richard Rohr agreed. “Some of the young people today feel like old souls,” he said. “And some of my generation feel like old fools.”

We all get older; not all become elders. Nor are all the young immature; many have a wisdom beyond their years. There’s also a certain youthfulness that can come with age, which is what we mean when we say someone is “young at heart.” It’s not the same as being immature, which is what happens when we try to avoid the realities of aging. Rather it is the freedom that comes through an acceptance aging and the surprising discovery of a second youth.

Now, the second vignette which brought home to me something many of you already already know:

At my first diocesan convention as your bishop, we invited Dr. Lisa Kimball from Virginia Theological Seminary to address us, her expertise being the spirituality of teenagers and young adults. But she also challenged us to consider the other end of the spectrum.  She told us that the fastest growing demographic in our country consists of people over the age of 70. “The spiritual terrain of those years,” she said, “is under-explored and under-valued. This requires our immediate attention as a Church.” I’ve never forgotten that.

So what is the spiritual terrain of eldership?

I’d like to suggest a few markers, at the risk, as they say, of bringing coals to Newcastle. I count on you to tell me if I’m at least in the right ball park as I speak of these things. I do so with some urgency, not merely for those of you already in your 70s and beyond, but for those of us who are right behind you, and for all people, really, no matter our age, as we seek to set our hearts to wisdom and find ways to live with meaning and joy.

Richard Rohr, again, has this to say: “There are at least two major tasks to human life. The first task is to build a strong ‘container’ or identity; the second task is to find the contents that the container is meant to hold.”

The first task we often take for granted as the purpose of life; it is the work of identify formation, job seeking, establishing relationships, determining where to live and what you’re going to wear. These are all the external parameters of our existence. The second task is less about surviving successfully in this world, and more, as Rohr likes to say, about  “the task within the task,” or getting clarity about “what we are really doing when we’re are doing what we are doing.”

What we’re really doing when we’re doing what we’re doing.

The New York Times journalist David Brooks, in his book The Road to Character describes this same task a bit differently. This is his preamble:

About once a month I run across a person who radiates an inner light. These people can be in any walk of life. They seem deeply good. They listen well. They make you feel funny and valued. You often catch them looking after other people and as they do so their laugh is musical and their manner is infused with gratitude. They are not thinking about what wonderful work they are doing. They are not thinking about themselves at all.

When I meet such a person it brightens my whole day. But I confess I often have a sadder thought: It occurs to me that I’ve achieved a decent level of career success, but I have not achieved that. I have not achieved that generosity of spirit, or that depth of character.

A few years ago I realized that I wanted to be a bit more like those people. I realized that if I wanted to do that I was going to have to work harder to save my own soul.

In the second task of life, we’re talking about soul-saving work, the terrain of deep meaning, of eldership– how we become not only wise, but caring, generous, self-giving and–did you hear it?–joyful.

Let me list a few milestones of this particular terrain.  

The first is a shift from what we might call the work of attainment and accomplishment to that of letting go. Of course the process of letting go begins early in life, for with every milestone of accomplishment we must let something else go. I remember coming across an essay our elder son wrote when he was in 7th grade. As he entered adolescence, he had begged us for a room of his own, because his younger brother was driving him crazy. So we worked to configure our small house to give him his own room on the first floor, away from the rest of us on the second floor. And he was elated. But what he wrote about was how, at first, he missed the companionship of his brother and being part of the family as we all settled in for the night. He quickly got over it and came to relish the privacy and distance. But even at that age, he recognized that getting what he wanted also meant that he had to let something go.

And as you know, the process of letting go continues and never gets easier. I, for one, think it gets harder. Rohr calls these “the necessary losses” of life.  

The poet Mary Oliver describes the loss this way:

To live in this world
You must be able
To do three things:
To love what is mortal
To hold it
Against your bones knowing
Your own life depends on it;
And, when the times comes, to let it go.
To let it go.
(“In Blackwater Woods” by Mary Oliver, from American Primitive. © Back Bay Books, 1983. )

 We don’t walk far into the terrain of eldership without learning a lot about letting go.

A second milestone of the spiritual terrain of eldership, related to the first, is the wisdom gained through suffering. Not suffering for its own sake or actively pursued, but suffering as it comes to us and in the recognition and acceptance of suffering as an inevitable dimension of life. Simply put, the longer we live, the more we will suffer. We needn’t be embittered by suffering; nor need we passively accept it. But there’s something that happens to us when we accept suffering, allowing it to expand our hearts, that enables us to live without being broken by the suffering we experience. This is a spiritual task of enormous significance.

Hear this:

In a game of cards or tennis there may come a moment when you see cannot possibly win. The same can happen with your hope of a happy marriage or a brilliant career. Can you go on playing still, with no expectation of a win? Yes. This is the way you should have played from the start. Not for the victory, though you should strive for that, but for the game itself. . . John Donne and George Herbert were ambitious men. Both hoped to serve the state in some high capacity. Both were disappointed. Both became clergymen. A cynic might conclude that they had settled for second best. But can a second best turn out better than the first? Can defeat be met in such a way that it yields a greater prize than victory? Most of us are destined for failure, which is a form of suffering. How to use our suffering, how to turn the lead of our defeat into the gold of something else, is the object of religious alchemy. Not the only one; but the one most of us are interested in.

Can you feel the significance of this? Turning the lead of defeat into the gold of something else–these are the hard-won gifts of wisdom that come from a life courageously lived.

Just a few more milestones:

Delighting in the strength, beauty and accomplishments of youth. Celebrating in others what we can no longer do or have, which requires us to accept the realities of physical limitations and that some paths in life do eventually close to us.

As I was leaving Minnesota, I went to say goodbye to a friend dying of cancer He held my hand, his eyes sparkling with tears, his face beaming: “You are embarking on such an adventure,” he said. “I am so happy and excited for you!” This was his deathbed blessing for me.

Which points to another milestone of spiritual eldership: the active contemplation of what lies beyond the great mystery of death, a discipline of great courage about which an entire sermon could be preached.

And the last milestone I’ll mention today that runs through all I have spoken of for us: daily disciples of service to others, doing what we can, offering what we have. We do this through mentoring and coaching; through gestures of support, increasingly behind the scenes; through generosity and acts of kindness. Through it all, our presence is more important than what we do, as we gracefully cheer others on.

Teach us Lord, to number our days, that we might set our hearts to wisdom.

I put all this before us, friends, to say, as is often said, “aging is not for the faint hearted.” The spiritual tasks of aging are even more daunting than the physical changes that occur. But the fruits of a life well lived are of tremendous value for everyone in our fabric of relationships.

I believe that as a church we could do much better to explore this terrain with one another, that collectively we have been, as Dr. Kimball said, sorely neglectful of how we might have honest, courageous conversation about this great adventure called aging. We can do better in our support one another through it. So I gently put before us a collaborative challenge, that we might create circles of meaningful conversation for some of the most courageous work that we are called in this life to undertake.

For as we age, we are called to embody our mortal bodies as fully as we can, accepting the necessary losses, inevitable suffering, and regular experiences of defeat of life, allowing God’s grace and power to transform them into pearls of wisdom to be cherished and shared. Each experience of letting go and passing on prepares us for the day when we will let everything go, when at last, God calls us home.

I look forward to working in partnership with Seabury, the clergy of our diocese, and all of you in this great work of cultivating the terrain of spiritual eldership. We are here today not merely to honor those who provide good voluntary services, but to honor the most courageous, spiritually fearless among us, from whom we have so much to learn as we walk as companions on this path.

More to come. For now, thank you for allowing me to reflect on these things with you and for allowing your lives to be an occasion of joyful celebration.

In the name of God. Amen.