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The Gift of Maturity

May 8, 2017

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A Sermon preached by The Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on the Third Sunday after Easter, May 7, 2017. This was the beginning of Older Adult Week in the PC(USA). Above: playing Uno with my son and my grandmother earlier this year.

 Matthew 5:1-10         Psalm 71:17-19

O God, from my youth you have taught me, and I still proclaim your wondrous deeds.

So even to old age and gray hairs, O God, do not forsake me,
until I proclaim your might to all the generations to come.

Your power and your righteousness, O God, reach the high heavens.
You who have done great things, O God, who is like you?

You who have made me see many troubles and calamities will revive me again;
from the depths of the earth you will bring me up again.

You will increase my honor, and comfort me once again. (Psalm 71:17-19, NRSV)

A friend of mine used to say, “Getting old isn’t hard. It just takes time. Growing up, however, now that’s hard work.” What he is talking about is the difference between age and maturity. Age is a factor of time, some are granted long life. Maturity, however, takes effort, intention, and involves no little grace. It is something we work on throughout life, at every stage of life, though in different ways. When I used to discuss maturity with the kids in my youth groups and confirmation classes, I would speak of maturity in terms of the common tasks of the first half of life – establishing an identity and sense of belonging; discerning their gifts, desires, aspirations and call, what one author describes as “creating a proper container for one’s life.” But in the second half of life maturity means “finding the actual contents that this container is meant to hold and deliver.” While questions of identity and belonging continue, maturity now also means coming to terms with life’s many losses, limits and ambiguities.[1]

The difference between maturity and age is an essential part of many world religions. In Judaism and Christianity it is a defining feature of the wisdom traditions, which for us includes many psalms.

Psalm 71, which we share this morning, has traditionally been understood to have been written by an older person. [2] The psalmist speaks as one of advanced age;

  • Upon you I have leaned from my birth; it was you who took me from my mother’s womb. My praise is continually of you. (v. 9)
  • O God, from my youth you have taught me, and I still proclaim your wondrous deeds. (v. 18)

and looks back on a long life;

  • Do not cast me off in the time of old age; do not forsake me when my strength is spent. (v. 6)
  • So even to old age and gray hairs, O God, do not forsake me, until I proclaim your might to all the generations to come. (v. 17)

Psalm 71 appears to be a cut-and-paste job where the author cobbles together snippets from different psalms. It’s primarily a pastiche of psalms 22 and 31, but it includes others as well. It is as if the psalmist is collecting a set of familiar verses that have served him or her well throughout life. Each of the original psalms cited express a cry for help, a lament that acknowledges loss and grief, or indicates a present injustice or oppression; but in each case the psalmist works through the cry for help to a place of confidence in God’s justice, judgment through which one may know joy in God’s presence. The psalmist is moved from prayer to praise.[3]

This, despite the fact, that the confidence is often counterfactual. God’s justice is not always visible, or apparent, and help is not “real.” At least not yet. It is certainly not experienced in the present. But standing on the side of God’s justice in the midst of great injustice, expressing confidence in God’s desire to help while still remaining in a place of need – this is where God’s people are called to be. And we know God’s justice, if at all, because God’s people bear witness to it not only with our liturgy but with our lives.

Psalm 71, however, is unusual in making this affirmation not once but three times. Because it is a cut and paste job, it moves from lament to praise, from protest to presence, again and again and once more again. The effect is to leave an impression of very deep trust in God’s justice, a trust that is not the working out of a single prayer or litany, but of a lifetime. It is wisdom, a gift that may come only with maturity.

After my father died, my mom worked for years first as a hospice nurse, and then as a parish nurse in her local Presbyterian Church. I called her the other day to ask about resources for aging well, and she recommended Richard Rohr’s recent book Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life. Richard Rohr is a Franciscan friar who runs the Center for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Father Richard uses the metaphor of falling, an image often associated with aging, but which has its own religious association with failing, to introduce the challenges of the second half of life so that we might learn to fall upward (toward maturity) rather than simply accept falling down(ward) as a fact of life.

“We grow spiritually,” he writes, “much more by doing it wrong than by doing it right.”

This is why I have called it “falling upward.” Those who are ready will see that this message is self-evident: those who have gone “down” are the only ones who understand “up.” Those who have somehow fallen, and fallen well, are the only ones who can go up and not misuse “up.” I want to describe what “up” in the second half of life will look like – and could look like! And, most especially, I want to explore how we transition from one to the other – and how it is not by our own willpower or moral perfection. It will be nothing like what we might have imagined beforehand, and we can’t engineer it by ourselves. It is done to us.

One more warning, if that is the right word: you will not know for sure that the message is true until you are on the “up” side. You will never imagine it to be true until you have gone through the “down” yourself and come out on the other side in larger form. You must be pressured “from on high,” by fate, circumstance, love, or God, because nothing in you wants to believe it, or wants to go through it. Falling upward is a “secret” of the soul, known not by thinking about it or proving it but only by risking it – at least once. And by allowing yourself to be led – at least once. Those who have allowed it know it is true, but only after the fact.

This is probably why Jesus praised faith and trust even more than love. It takes a foundational trust to fall or to fail – and not to fall apart.[4]

Here we learn that maturity comes through loss, through failure, he calls it the central insight of many world religions. Only when we have hit bottom, convert (in the sense of having our life turned completely around), have a life threatening or life-challenging experience the places everything else in perspective, that reorients our lives, do we begin to grow in wisdom. Some of us, of course, begin this quite early. (If we don’t outright protect ourselves from it. That is also a central truth, that we are prone to hiding ourselves from the pain of loss and grief.)

My friend lost his job this week. After more than twenty-five years as a medical professional, ten with the same company, the company let him go, in part – of course, because his years of experience meant his salary was higher than other more recently hired employees. He’s 56 years old. He has a wife and a daughter heading off to college next year. The odds of finding a comparable job with comparable compensation are steep. So with this loss of job comes the loss of income, the loss of health care, potentially the loss of his house, and a great deal of uncertainty for a long time to come. He just applied for a job a Trader Joe’s.

When we talk about growing older we must be careful not to do so in an insular environment. We are growing older in an environment in which health care and Medicaid and any form of social safety net are being joyously shredded by our own government. Most of us enter the second half of life still struggling with the tasks of the first half, identity, income, securing a place in the world.

Nor do I want to be romantic about aging. Someone every day, voices the complaints that come with age, the body is failing us, limiting abilities, the loss of sharp focus and energy. The health crisis that is not specific but systemic, just one thing on top of another. Mary Louise Bringle, who wrote the song that our choir sang earlier, wanted to acknowledge that “especially in developed countries, people are living longer than in earlier eras, yet many abilities do not endure through these added years.” She wrote the hymn to affirm that “although our human memories fade and our human arms weaken, the memory and arms of God uphold us everlastingly.”[5] She set the words to a very familiar tune, FINLANDIA, to which we used to singing, “Be Still my soul, the Lord is on thy side,” a song about deep peace within one’s being. We also sing “This is my song, O God of all the nations, a song of peace for lands afar and mine,” a song about the kind of spiritual maturity necessary for international peace. The same confidence these songs express, confidence in God’s abiding presence for both healing and hope, in our lives and the life of the world, comes through as we hear Bringle’s hymn about growing older. She helps bring us to the place of affirmation that underlies Psalm 71 and aging psalmist: peace and praise.

O God of life and healing power, empower us with patient courage, by your grace infused.
We grieve the waning, yet rejoice, believing your arms unwearied, shall uphold us still.

This morning we are offering prayer and anointing to any and all who wish it. This is an act of healing. But healing from what? Not from aging. Not from precarity. Not from limitation or the inevitable aches and pains. But healing from those things that prevent us from facing the challenges of this world secure in God’s love and trusting each other. So healing from what? Healing from the illusion of control, perfection, strength, and independence that siphon such energy and joy that we would otherwise receive from our own selves, from our friends, from our community, and indeed from God! When I talk about anointing for healing this morning, it is an invitation to the gifts of maturity – no matter your age – the gift of honesty (with oneself, with others and with God), of openness and compassion, of self-compassion, of recognizing our strengths and not only our weaknesses, of inter-dependency of each of us on one another. The invitation to healing is an invitation to becoming whole in a process of coming to terms with who we are, who we have been, and who we yet may be.

As God’s baptized people, as those called and gifted by God to journey through the two halves of life, we come to the this table to be nurtured and strengthened. As you come forward, members of our prayer ministry are making themselves available today for an anointing with oil and laying on of hands.[6]

The prayer minister will offer you a blessing, anoint your head with a specially prepared oil and a healing touch. Healing is not magic. It doesn’t make problems or illnesses disappear. Rather, healing is a process of being knit together – of being strengthened within and of being supported without by this community. Healing is an invitation to deeper trust in yourself, in God, and in this community that the array of challenges we face as individuals and as a society would not define us but rather can open us to one another in courage, in comfort, and in care.

Come, for all has been prepared. Come, and find strength for the journey.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] The tasks for the two halves of life were first described by Carl Jung. I cite them here from Richard Rohr, Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life. (Jossey-Bass, 2011).

[2] “Psalm 71” in James Luther Mays, PsalmsInterpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching. (John Knox Press, 1994).

[3] “Psalm 71” in J. Clinton McCann, Jr., Psalms, in The New Interpreter’s Bible: A Commentary in Twelve Volumes. (Abingdon, 1996).

[4] My mom also recommended Amy Hanson, Baby Boomers and Beyond: Tapping the Ministry Talents and Passions of Adults Over 50. (Jossey-Bass, 2010), pp. XXV-XXVI.

[5] Hymn note to “When Memory Fades” (Hymn 808) in Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal (Westminster John Knox Press, 2013). This is not the first time we had sung this hymn at WPPC.

[6] During the Eucharist, prayer ministers stood beside the elders and elements with vials of oil to offer this pastoral ministry. It was a very moving addition to our service that we have already heard requests to repeat. Our liturgy drew from the Book of Common Worship as well as from Abigail Rian Evans, Healing Liturgies for the Seasons of Life (Westminster John Knox, 2004). A reformed theology of anointing is described in The Companion to the Book of Common Worship, edited by Peter C. Bower (Geneva Press, 2003).

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