Mr. Samuel Dawes of St. Michael & All Angels and Bishop Mariann at the Seabury Resources for Aging Celebration of Service on April 3. Photo by Michele Egan
Teach us, Lord, to number our days, that we might set our hearts to wisdom.
Years ago, when our first child was a toddler, we traveled with him to Sweden, my mother’s homeland. It was the last time I saw my grandfather before he died. We traveled with dear friends who were completely enthralled with my grandparents’ way of life. “I love watching them,” one of them said. “It gives me a glimpse of what our lives could be at their age.”
It had not occurred to me before then to look at my grandparents’ life that way. Being so absorbed in the tasks of my own stage in life, I simply couldn’t imagine making the two-generation leap to be in their place.
But time has a way of moving forward, and I am now within a decade to being the age my grandparents were that summer. As I enter my sixtieth decade, I find myself wondering what those two generations behind me think of what it’s like to be this old.
I spoke last night with our twenty-eight year old son via video conference, a wonderful innovation for those of us with family far away. I had just returned from my step-mother’s funeral, a woman who, when she married my father, welcomed us into her circle of love as if we had been part of her biological family all along. The celebration of her long and lovely life was marked by deep grief, not only for her death but also the premature death of one of my step-sister’s young adult sons, who was exactly our son’s age. On my computer screen, I saw his countenance change. He then told me that one of his close friends from college had just lost his younger brother who died in a hiking accident while traveling in Spain.
The deaths of two young adults were a poignant reminder to both of us that not everyone born has the privilege of growing old. For all its challenges and struggles, it is nonetheless a gift to grow old. I told him that I would be speaking to a congregation of elders this morning, people being honored for making transformational contributions in their communities of faith, and together we remembered with great affection the elders from the congregation he grew up in who had been such a positive presence in his life.
Then we talked about the fact fact that no matter our age—20, 40, 60, 80–there is always someone coming up behind us. Indeed, one of the tasks of eldership is to become the kind of people that rising generations love to spend time with, because of how we make them feel about themselves in our presence.
I’d like to explore with you this spiritual terrain of eldership and identify some of its tasks. In the words of the spiritual leader, Father Richard Rohr, “Not all grow up to be elders. Some of us just grow old.” The responsibilities of eldership don’t come upon us suddenly, but gradually over years. Eldership is like soil we must tend to whose fruits are the result of a lifetime of cultivation.
The first task I’ll mention today is finding a place inside ourselves large enough to hold the many losses of life and the grief they cause. Grief is not reserved for our elder years, but as we age, the losses occur more frequently and are compounded by other losses, as we must let go of some defining aspects of our outer identify, physical abilities, and our dreams of what life would be.
Aging is not for the faint-hearted. But the work of creating an internal home of acceptance is not ours alone. Here we can experience in profound ways the tender mercies of God and the personal presence of Christ. Christ cannot take our grief away, but He is present with us, holding us, giving us His strength, helping us carry on.
Another task of eldership leads us on the path of quiet joy: it is to look for and savor life’s small blessings as they come to us. This is the spiritual practice of paying attention to the many bits of goodness all around to us, to take them in, and allow them to fill us: As St. Paul wrote in his letter to the Philippians: “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these thing, and the God of peace will be with you.” (Philippians 4:8-9) When rising generations see us living in this way, seeking out and delighting joy, they are inspired to do the same and they are encouraged by our example to dream and live in hope.
A third task of eldership is what developmental psychologists call generativity, which is simply making a space for and giving preference to rising generations, and getting out of their way. This is the time in life when we are to care more about what others want than what we want. When I speak to congregations going through a transition in clergy leadership, I say to everyone over the age of 50 that our preferences should not be the primary agenda for the congregation’s future, even if we are paying most of the bills. Our preferences are not irrelevant, but our primary focus needs to be the spiritual questions and life needs of our children and grandchildren. I often think of the ministry of St. John the Baptist in this context, though he died a young man, for he said, in relationship to Jesus, “He must increase and I must decrease.” This is an important realization of our elder year: We are no longer at the center, but increasingly in the background, making life better for others.
The final eldership task I’ll mention today is also a source of great sustenance and joy for us, and surprisingly hard for us to make time for: this is the season of life to cherish friendship. We needn’t explore the spiritual terrain of growing older alone. We have each other. Look around this beautiful Cathedral and see all the people with whom we can share this stage of life with, if only we dared to speak together of the things that matter most.
I’m so grateful for a growing collaboration between Seabury Resources for Aging and the Diocese of Washington that is helping us create circles of community and deep conversation among us. I urge you to cherish your friendships in church, and take advantage of those precious opportunities to speak and grow spiritual eldership together.
Let me end this by giving thanks to God for everyone gathered here today, and especially for our honorees this morning. I have been looking forward to this day for a long time. It is an honor to be among you and share this ministry with you. You are an inspiration and a blessing, reminding us all that while we are blessed with the gift of years, we are here to love, to serve, and to create within ourselves a dwelling place for Christ and a bit of respite, encouragement, and joy for others.
May we remember the gift we are to one another as we strive each day to walk in Jesus’ way of love.