In recent months I partici-pated in two seminars on the topic of aging. One was led by Dr. Kenneth Pargament from Bowling Green University, and it focused on the spirituality of aging. The other, led by Gerald and Marlene Kaufman, therapists from Pennsylvania, was entitled, “Necessary Conversations: Aging Together in the Church”. Both of these workshops were time well spent. Aging is a relevant topic because it happens! You can be sure you’re preparing for something that will come. “Time and tide wait for no man,” wrote Geoffrey Chaucer in the 14th century. A 20th century poet puts it this way:
How did it get so late so soon?
It’s night before it’s afternoon.
December is here before it’s June.
My goodness how the time has flewn.
How did it get so late so soon?
The passage of time is relentless. There is absolutely nothing we can do to stop it. The most we can do is embrace it and prepare for it. Dr. Pargament, a clinical psychologist, recommends to therapists that they record a “future” as well as a “history” from their clients. The best predictors of a person’s future behaviour are their plans and intentions. If we can anticipate and prepare for some of the transitions of aging, chances are good that they will go more smoothly. The Kaufmans recommend that aging parents make a point of calling a formal family meeting to discuss the future with their children. The agenda should include topics of finance, housing, driving, healthcare, death and funeral planning. This is not an easy thing to do because most of us naturally resist the realities of old age. Who looks forward to getting old and frail? However, the Kaufmans insist that “far too many families wait until circumstances force them to talk, and then they have to make decisions under pressure, which often leads to conflict that can continue for years.” (From Necessary Conversations, Good Books, 2013, available in our church library.)
Aging is a natural part of life, and we live in a culture that tends to deny and fear it. We worship the picture of youth and dread the loss of our function and faculties. Part of the calling of the church community is to resist this trend of fearfulness. The church is one of the places in society where aging can be faced courageously and where the elderly can be meaningfully integrated. The church is also a place where older persons can be challenged to grow and change. Spiritual growth can continue until the very end.
The Mennonite writer, Katie Funk Wiebe, has described three spiritual invitations for the older years. First of all there is the invitation to identity. As we age, it is tempting to describe ourselves in terms of who we were or what we did. The new challenge is to discover who we are now that we are retired or less capable physically or mentally. There is also the invitation to find a vital role. Who am I now, when I no longer work or walk or remember as I used to? Who do I seek to be in my family? Who am I in my church? Older adults can become important bearers of wisdom, tradition and historical knowledge. They can also be prophets and graceful witnesses to the way of Christ, which is to lose oneself in order to be born anew. A third spiritual invitation is to “transcend the losses”. How to come to terms with some of the big disappointments and failures in life? How to work with the relational rifts that have occurred over the years? Forgiveness can become an important spiritual task in the later years. Spiritual maturity and the ability to forgive is not something that necessarily comes with age. It still requires effort and the later years are a good time to invest in spiritual growth. It’s never too late for God’s spirit to work in our lives.