Ecclesiastes 3: 1-11a
For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:
a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
a time to seek, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to throw away;
a time to tear, and a time to sew;
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
a time to love, and a time to hate;
a time for war, and a time for peace.
9 What gain have the workers from their toil? 10 I have seen the business that God has given to everyone to be busy with. 11 He has made everything suitable for its time; moreover he has put a sense of past and future into their minds.
2 Cor 4:16-5:2
16 So we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. 17 For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure, 18 because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal.
5 For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. 2 For in this tent we groan, longing to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling—
I hesitated to use the term “aging” in titling this sermon, because the fact is that from the moment of our birth, we are all aging. And the extent to which we practice the serenity prayer with it, accepting the things we cannot change but changing the things we can, probably determines how we deal with it spiritually. Still, to be honest, today’s remarks will focus on what I’ll call “later aging” but I hope you younger ones will benefit from this too, because as the saying goes, “Yes. Even you are growing old.”
So let me begin by observing that today’s epistle reading may be one of the most practical scriptures in the whole Bible by offering us these words, “Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day.” It would seem Paul had maybe had that strange experience noted by so many, where you realize you have gotten up there in years, but you still feel the same on the inside. Indeed the soul seems to be ageless. In any case, in these words, Paul faces head-on the difficult topic of aging, which, someone has said, is not for sissies. And I have heard more than a few elderly hospice patients question the term, “the golden years” pointing out that the ravages of their illnesses left them feeling anything but golden. Indeed, the aging process taps into our deepest fears about mortality, and perhaps worse yet, about loss of control along the way.
And really, it seems to me, loss of control accounts for a lot of our angst when it comes to growing old. As part of a church study on the book “Still Here” by Ram Das about aging, I remember once raising the question of loss of control. It seemed to me, after all, that if we really believed the Ecclesiastes text that “to everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven,” we wouldn’t be so resistant to aging. If you live long enough to die of old age, you will, for example, go out like you came in, with little or no control over bodily functions and completely dependent on others. So why do we accept and even cherish this state of things in infants, but recoil from them in old age? I think it’s pretty clear that it’s the control thing. Infants have never had it, and so we ascribe them with innocence and even delight. The elderly live their whole lives with it, and learn in our individualistic, western culture, that being in control is part and parcel of being acceptable. So to lose control over one’s life and especially one’s body is horrifying to most.
It’s not necessarily so in other cultures where a return to the state of dependency is accepted as part and parcel of the whole human journey, and the dependent elderly are cherished and revered. This was one of the main points in the excellent book, “Tuesdays With Morrie,” where Morrie, paralyzed by ALS, made the completely radical and counter-cultural statement that he was giving his children a great gift by the fact that they now had to bathe him. He was giving them the chance to confront raw vulnerability and dependence, and get free of our American aversion to it, to begin to come to peace with it as a part of any fully authentic, human journey.
And so that is the first point I’d like to make in this sermon about aging, that aging is so hard for us precisely because it represents loss of control over our bodies and sometimes our minds, and this leads to a condition of relative dependency on others. And in a culture where radical independence is everything, we find this state of things profoundly distasteful. Step one then, it seems to me, in coming to peace with aging, is to expose the myth, indeed the idolatrous belief, that independence is the only acceptable state, and to begin to accept the fact that dependence and loss of control over our bodies is an inevitable part of the whole human experience, and, in fact, can actually be an endearing part if one can just change ones attitude about it, like Morrie did. So begin to question the veneration of independence as a god, because really, it’s an idol and one that complicates life powerfully and unnecessarily.
The second point I’d like to make is related. That after we expose the myth of radical independence and the little g god of “being in control,” we are presented with a fundamental, spiritual growth opportunity, and one that is a basic key to a peaceful life in general, no matter what your age. And that is the power of acceptance, the power of a deep kind of non-resistance to what is. This is where my main squeeze, Eckhart Tolle, comes in. Tolle explains the concept of acceptance this way, “To be accepting of what is means being in a state of inner nonresistance with what happens, to let it be. Does this mean you can no longer take action to bring about change in your life? On the contrary. When the basis for your actions is inner alignment with the present moment, your actions become empowered by the intelligence of life itself, as can only be found in each present moment. Acceptance means: for now, this is what this situation, this moment, requires me to do, and so I do it willingly. For example, you may not be able to enjoy changing the flat tire on your car at night in the middle of nowhere in the pouring rain, but you can bring acceptance to it. Performing an action in the state of acceptance means you are at peace while you do it, you are not wasting energy mentally fighting it. That peace is a subtle, vibrational energy which then flows into what you do. On the surface, acceptance looks like a passive state, but in reality it is active and creative because it brings something entirely new into this world.” Rumi says it this way, “Learn the alchemy true human beings know. The moment you accept what troubles you’ve been given, the door will swing open.”
Spiritual teacher and guru, the late Ram Das, also has plenty to say about acceptance, and specifically as it relates to aging. In that wonderful book, Still Here Ram Das opens up honestly about his unconscious resistance to aging throughout his life, and most particularly, after the massive brain hemorrhage that severely compromised his speech and mobility in his eighties. Eventually, he works his way through the struggle and resistance, and finally says, “Although my outward life has been radically altered, I no longer see myself as a stroke victim. Having accepted my predicament, I’m much happier than I was before. This troubles some of the people around me. They have told me that I should fight to walk again, but I don’t know if I want to walk; I’m sitting now- that’s where I am. Why is this wrong? I’ve grown to love my wheelchair (I call it my Swan Boat) and to love being wheeled about by people who love me. They carry Chinese emperors and Indian maharahas on Palanquins; in other cultures, it’s a symbol of honor and power to be carried and wheeled. I no longer believe it’s all-important to be what our culture calls “optimal.”
Ram Dass came to a place of deep acceptance that to everything there is, in fact, a season. He didn’t get there easily or cheaply, and this is not to say it should be done quickly or without struggle in the process. You have to start where you are, and if that is with rage and non-acceptance, you do yourself no favors by prettying it up. But after honest grappling with the pain for as long as you need, hopefully there can begin to be a shift to a deeper kind of acceptance.
This calls to mind the serenity prayer, part of which most people know. But it is actually longer than the prayer we usually say, and I quote it now in its entirety, "God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.
Living one day at a time;
Enjoying one moment at a time;
Accepting hardships as the pathway to peace;
Taking this broken world
as it is, not as I would have it.”
And that introduces my next point, accepting hardship as the pathway to peace. This is the point Paul makes in today’s epistle: that “this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure. Because we know if this earthly tent is destroyed, we have a building from God…For in this tent we groan, longing to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling.”
Now the last thing I ever want to promote is pie in the sky when you die theology, a justification of suffering now with the promise of glory later, but I do think there is hope in anticipation of our new bodies in the afterlife! Scripture suggests over and over that after we shake off “this mortal coil” we, like Christ, are given new, resurrection bodies. I have been moved, in my hospice work, by the fact that so many patients reach the end, and then seem to enter a time of transition where they can often see loved ones who have gone before coming to meet them. I truly and deeply believe the scientific principle which says matter is constant. It cannot be created or destroyed, but just changes form. So as these human bodies yield to the dying process, I believe the energy that most constitutes who we are, goes on and just changes form, maybe just to a new frequency of consciousness. Like CS Lewis, I do not know the particulars of the furniture in heaven, nor can I explain how these new, resurrection bodies work. But I do assert, as part and parcel of my faith, that there is something more. Scripture is rustling with rumors of glory: A grand healing at the end where all that is broken in us both spiritually and physically, is made whole.
And my final point: even though there is great hope to be found in anticipating our heavenly bodies, we don’t have to wait for all the good stuff. Because there really are some good parts of aging even now, in this life. And they have to do with the psychological and emotional freedom that it can bring. We learn to let go of the mental bondages of youth: unrelenting perfectionism, worrying about what other people think of us, people pleasing, fitting in, things like that. This is well expressed in the reading by Jenny Joseph, familiar to many, entitled “Warning”
When I am an old woman I shall wear purple
With a red hat which doesn't go, and doesn't suit me.
And I shall spend my pension on brandy and summer gloves
And satin sandals, and say we've no money for butter.
I shall sit down on the pavement when I'm tired
And gobble up samples in shops and press alarm bells
And run my stick along the public railings
And make up for the sobriety of my youth.
I shall go out in my slippers in the rain
And pick flowers in other people's gardens
And learn to spit.
You can wear terrible shirts and grow more fat
And eat three pounds of sausages at a go
Or only bread and pickles for a week
And hoard pens and pencils and beermats and things in boxes.
But now we must have clothes that keep us dry
And pay our rent and not swear in the street
And set a good example for the children.
We must have friends to dinner and read the papers.
But maybe I ought to practice a little now?
So people who know me are not too shocked and surprised
When suddenly I am old, and start to wear purple.”
So I’ve thrown a lot at you today: First the idea that aging gets its terror from loss of control, and increasing dependency on others, and I suggested that radical independence might not be all it is cracked up to be.
Next I suggested that acceptance of the fact that “to everything there is a season” is a key part of getting free.
Thirdly I suggested that hardship really can be a pathway to peace, and that momentary affliction really can effect an eternal weight of glory, and that we will get new, healed and whole bodies after death.
Finally I suggested that aging has gifts for us in the here and now as well, in helping us get free from things like perfectionism and people pleasing. If life is the school and love is the lesson, as I firmly believe, then our purpose here is to grow, gradually to be transformed, into the highest, most loving version of our unique selves that we were created to be so that we might take our place in Christ’s body, charged with creating glimpses of the kingdom now. The poet May Sarton claimed her voice, well-hewned by aging, and said this:
Now I become myself. It's taken
Time, many years and places;
I have been dissolved and shaken,
Worn other people's faces…
But now to stand still, to be here,
Feel my own weight and density!...
O, in this single hour I live
All of myself and do not move.
What it really all comes down to can be summed up simply: that we may not know what tomorrow holds, but we know who holds tomorrow, and that One, that eternal power, mystery and love will hold us fast through it all. Amen.