Aging Gracefully

Beth Faeth June 10, 2018

Scripture 2 Corinthians 4:13–5:1

June may only be 10 days old, but, personally and professionally, it has already been marked with many milestones. My oldest daughter Ellie graduated from high school last weekend, turning 18 just 24 hours prior. This has sparked many a conversation on “adulting,” as trendy folks like to call it. Ellie has learned that priorities quickly shift when there are bills to pay—namely college tuition—and all things must come second (or third or fourth) to gainful employment. Forty-eight hours after moving her tassel from one side of the mortarboard to the other, Ellie had secured a second part-time job and will be schooled in all aspects of retail enterprise by the end of the summer. She is learning about adulthood and the lifelong lesson of finding balance between work and play, obligation and interest, the ability to say no and understanding what is necessary. These first days of June also brought my birthday, and this year I begin a brand-new decade. Turning an age which contains a zero has always caused me to pause, and I have both dreaded and welcomed this new era of mine. I spent many months in denial, muttering a mantra of it not being possible that I could actually be this old. But lately I have had a change of heart, saying good riddance to a decade that was both beautiful and brutal, and opening my heart, mind and spirit to the freedom and blessing that I trust being 50 will bring. I continue to ponder what it looks like to age well, to mature with grace and wisdom, to move into the future unafraid, trusting I have so much more to learn and so much more to give.

Most significant of these early June days to our community is the fact that in the course of less than a week, we held memorial services for two of our long-time, beloved church members: Chris Meadows and Norm Carpenter. These two men lived fascinating lives filled with transformative relationships, engaging work, art, intellect, community. As are we all, both were complicated, far from perfect and pure gift to our church, their families and friends and their communities. Now a part of our great cloud of witnesses, these saints in light left a legacy of faithful dedication to this church, and also modeled to us the importance of spiritual connection through intentional relationship. Privileged to be the one to officiate both memorial services, and learning more about these fine men following their deaths than I knew when they lived, I believe they both held the key that unlocks the door to aging gracefully: the renewal of spirit and being grounded in faith.

Not too long ago a survey was taken of people who were over the age of 95. Only one question was posed and it was open-ended—they could answer any way they wished: If you could live your life over again, what would you do differently? Among all the variety of answers, these three came back most frequently:

If I could live my life over again,
I would reflect more.
I would risk more.
I would do things that would live on after I am dead.

Reflect more. Risk more. Create legacy. For much of our lives, we all called on to produce—my 18-year-old daughter is quickly learning that. Our work lives begin at an early age and now extend much longer than ever before. We must provide for our families, we must keep up with the Joneses, we schedule our time until there is nothing left of it, or else the things that must get done do not, and we live in the wake of inadequacy and failure. But for what? If the consequence of our life is getting to the end of it feeling empty and barren of feeling, then what does that make of our own life’s meaning? Perhaps the gift that aging brings is the necessity to slow down, to pause, to consciously fill up the well of our being so that our very essence is both thoughtful and thought-filled.

Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians is largely a defensive soliloquy regarding his own ministry. The newly established community of Corinthian believers has been critical of Paul, claiming he is inconsistent, that he is cunning and underhanded and that he just doesn’t care about them. While second Corinthians presents as a singular letter in our Bibles, many scholars agree that this is most likely a compilation of two or more letters that Paul wrote to the church of Corinth in the mid–first century of the Common Era.

I will confess to you all that I have a lot of issues with Paul’s writings. For the decades that I have been in ministry, for the numerous Bible studies I have offered around Paul’s writing, for the sermons I have crafted using his voice through scripture, I have struggled with his arrogance, his tediousness, his judgment and certainly his understanding of women. I know I am not alone. A major theme of Paul’s is his own afflictions—whatever they may be—and more than once I have thrown up my hands and ordered the dead apostle to simply get over it. But, through my aging—whether graceful or not—I have come to a better appreciation of Paul’s message. Sometimes, he really does nail it. The passage I read earlier is one with which I resonate, especially as I consider our own becoming—our blossoming—while evaluating the last chapters of our lives. Paul invites us to consider ourselves as spiritual creations. Our bodies are imperfect, nonpermanent structures provided to house all that really matters—our spirit, our soul, our inner nature. Comparing our bodily framework to a tent—a sturdy structure that, while strong and resistant to the elements, does eventually wear, grow thin, tear, leak and then needs to be recycled and replaced—Paul reminds the Corinthians, and therefore us, that the good news is that life in the Spirit offers us a renewal of inner nature daily. That when we recognize ourselves as the spiritual beings God created us to be, and we open ourselves to embracing that knowledge, then real transformation begins. The physical ceases to matter. The afflictions that we bear lose power when we do the necessary work of reflection, risking and creating legacy. The health of the spirit has little to do with the health of the body, but it has everything to do with aging gracefully.

What Paul is depicting here is a distinctive way of perceiving and responding to life, one that involves attending to what is “unseen” (which is eternal) precisely amid what is “seen” (which is temporary). This is an important juxtaposition of the physical and the spiritual. Understanding that our inner nature holds personal power helps us make peace with the frailty of our physical lives. “It frees us to acknowledge that the ‘spaces’ in which we live—our ‘earthly tents’—are not ultimately secure. The physical spaces we identify with—bodies, homes, material possessions—even cities and nations—are all temporary, they all waste away. Even the social spaces that define us—our spheres of influence, our interpersonal and societal networks, and even our cultures—are not completely in our control. But amid the insecurity of these flimsy ‘tents,’ we find we have a building from God, a house not made by human hands (2 Corinthians 5:1b). What the Spirit creates within and among us through faith is nothing other than God’s overflowing, freely given reign of justice and mercy—making our lives a roomy and expansive domain of grace.” (Lois Malcolm, Luther Seminary Professor, from www.WorkingPreacher.org)

Recent research reports that $250 billion was spent on antiaging products in 2016, and that figure is forecast to reach $331 billion by 2021. One of the gifts I received on my birthday was a jar of skin-brightening, antiaging organic night cream. My friend, the gift giver, laughed at her own joke as I opened the package, but then looked at me seriously and said, “You are of an age when you better take care of your skin.” We can work hard to keep our tents looking fresh and new, but it means little if we are spiritually bereft. Popular doctor and author Andrew Weil, in his most recent book, Healthy Aging, uses the legend of the Buddha’s awakening to guide readers to an understanding of aging as stimulus to spiritual growth. Buddha’s father kept him locked up in a palace, surrounded by youth and beautiful things, so as to protect him from anything that would keep him from becoming a king and worldly leader. One day Buddha leaves the palace and sees an old man. This was the first of four messengers sent by the gods to awaken him. It was the awareness of aging—the fact that we grow old and decay—that propels Buddha on the path of enlightenment. Weil also reminds us that many things grow better with age. In an interview with Belief.net, Weil states, “Whiskey, wine, cheese, trees, violins, antiques. All better over time. If you look at whiskey, aging of whiskey smooths out rawness and greenness, it adds depth and complexity and smoothness, it adds flavors, it concentrates what’s desirable. At the same time, there is the evaporation of what’s less consequential, and I think it’s fairly easy to see analogies in human life with that process. Aging can increase value by concentrating what is most worthy and by allowing what’s inconsequential to dissipate. It can smooth out roughness and add depth of character.”

Perhaps the risk we all need to take is to embrace our own aging process and lean in to the spiritual awakening that can happen when we take time to notice and reflect upon our inner nature. Unlike the billion-dollar industry some deem necessary to care for our own tents—our outer nature—there is no cost to the maintenance and upkeep of our inner nature. God does the work. We just need to pay attention. We need to show up for our own spirit and we must be open to the possibility of transformation. We must claim ourselves as spiritual beings and then notice how slowing down and listening to our own breath begins to direct our path. This is why the poem Karen read earlier, “Ode to the Art of Aging Gracefully,” resonates. To be present to our own lives returns to us both acceptance and gratitude. And while relieved of any agenda of improving our spirit, there are practices in which we can participate that will enhance our understanding and deepen our enlightenment.

Your presence here today suggests that spiritual community is important to you. That coming together to worship, that experiencing God in relationship with others, is meaningful. I believe it is critical as we live into our inner nature. Elsewhere in the Apostle Paul’s writing, he stresses the significance of spiritual gifts, and that each one of us is bestowed by God a way to contribute to our primary community—through teaching, prophecy, hospitality, healing. Yes, we honor God when we use our gifts. Yes, we serve others when we use our gifts. Yes, we own our worth when we use our gifts. But Paul is also suggesting that the renewal of our spirit through the expression of our gifts also secures a place of belonging within community. It is only through community that our gifts come to light. The blessing of life held together in the Spirit is that each one of us holds the space of worthiness, the protection of the community, the keepers of covenant. These early days of June have also brought with them the tragic news of two celebrity deaths by suicide: Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain. There is a heightened need to pay attention to the spiritual well-being of those we walk the way with. People need to feel loved, worthy, safe. We need to know we have a place to belong, a place to experience the miraculous benefit of companionship. A place to be intentional about building up our inner nature. That place is the church. That place is Plymouth. Let us create space here so that all might know that no matter what afflicts our outer nature, and no matter what the condition of our inner nature, there is a place of love, of honor, of companionship, of mutuality, of respect, of grace right here . . . for everyone.

I look around me with gratitude, for so many of you are wonderful models of aging gracefully. No matter if you are 10 or 100, let us not lose heart, to quote Paul, but rather let us commit to celebrating the daily renewal of our spirit—both individually and communally. Let us reflect together and risk together, creating a legacy of love and justice, faithful compassion and grace-filled living for generations to come. Amen.