The Art of Abundant Living:
Embracing Mortality

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Nineteenth Sunday After Pentecost • October 15, 2017
Readings: Wisdom of Solomon 4:8-9 and John 21:18-19
Pastor Jeff Wells

     I stand before you at the beginning of a new stage of life – one that has been labeled, “the pilgrimage into the last third of life."* While all of life is subject to unexpected challenges and afflictions, the years from age 60 to 90 and beyond tend to be much more unpredictable and filled with nearly inevitable health issues, loss, and diminishment of capacities. I just turned 60 in August and I have already been experiencing some of those travails. Also, I watch as nearly all of the friends, family, and acquaintances in my age range and older struggle with a variety of physical and mental challenges.

     This morning I want to reflect with you on aging and mortality. The title of this message is “Embracing Mortality” – within the overall theme of “The Art of Abundant Living,” but actually, I am arguing for embracing both the impact of aging and our inevitable death in living abundantly. So, what could that mean?

     A couple of days ago, I talked with a friend about today’s topic. She has always been very active, but recently developed serious pain in her hip that has seriously slowed her down. She reflected, “This is the first time I have had a physical issue that won’t let me do whatever I want to do.” With indignation, she exclaimed, “I climbed Machu Picchu a few years ago and now I have trouble kneeling down to play with my grandchildren!”

    Such decline – sometimes arriving quite suddenly – doesn’t begin when you turn 60. Diane remembers that when she turned 40, her doctor said, “Happy Birthday. The warranty is now expired.” There is a growing population of aging persons in the U.S. for whom the warranty has expired and they are learning to live with bodies and minds in which some parts are broken or just don’t work as well anymore.

     By 2030, there will be nearly 72 million people aged 65 and older in the U.S. One third of older people suffer from some level of hearing loss. Most older people experience varying degrees of vision loss.

     Some studies say that 50 percent of persons 85 and older will succumb to Alzheimer’s disease. That’s a scary statistic. The reality is that nearly all of us, beginning in our 50s, experience some memory loss. A retired Presbyterian pastor put it this way: “Three things I tend to forget: the names of persons I just met, what I did yesterday, and the third thing...I can’t remember!”

     Althea Spencer Miller, an affiliate pastor at The Church of the Village and professor at Drew Theological School, who recently turned 62, said that, in addition to trouble with her knees that have caused her a lot of pain and difficulty walking, she has experienced the impact of aging most in struggling with language – specifically in finding the right word in a given moment. This, she told me, has brought her a new kind of humility, as she has learned to allow people around her to fill in the words she cannot recall and to feel at peace with that. Another COTV member told me, “As I have come to realize my memory is deteriorating, it has taught me to be more tolerant of myself.”

     It takes courage and strength and a lot of grace to face the effects of aging and to embrace all the joys and challenges of this life that can be incorporated into an experience of abundant living.

     Both Diane and I have experienced a series of physical afflictions over the past couple of years that have really disrupted our lives and our sense of our vitality and abilities. And I have noticed, especially as I have been thinking about this message for several weeks, that whenever people in my age group and older get together, the conversation usually comes around at some point to our various aches and pain and sense of losing the capacity we once had.

     Yet, if we approach our later years consciously and intentionally, then our afflictions and reduced capacity can help us to experience what Kathleen Fischer calls, “winter grace” – a “courage grown larger in the face of diminishment.”

     For many of us, when we are younger, it is easy to think we have a long time to live or to think that, unlike others around us, we will somehow be able to avoid the worst effects of aging. We think we are invincible or that we will be the exception. That turns out to be a delusion.  

     I admit to having fallen into that delusion myself. For years, I have said I want to live to be 100. Why not? My great uncle John lived to be 104. My parents both lived to be 88 and they had much more serious health concerns by the time they were my current age. I convinced myself that because I took much better care of myself – I exercised regularly and I was pretty careful about what I ate – I would avoid their levels of poor health. I thought, “I’m going to be vigorous and still running three times a week when I’m in my 70s – maybe even 80s.” Then, two years ago, I experienced partial hearing loss in my right ear. The next year I had two instances of skin cancer. And this year, I have dealt with a very serious nerve impingement caused by bone spurs in my spine. I haven’t run for a year. I haven’t gotten back to any serious exercise or sports, although I still plan to. I have woken up to the truth that no one gets a pass when it comes to the deterioration of our bodies. I haven’t give up on my dream of living to 100 yet, but I am starting to open myself to the possibility that I won’t make it.

     When faced with illness, infirmity, a diminishment of our physical and mental capacities, with more frequent loss of loved ones, some people get angry. Some withdraw and let their lives wither. But it is possible to approach this stage of our lives with a different attitude and, therefore, to have a different experience – an experience of abundant living – by embracing our aging and mortality.

     It is true at every stage of our lives, but perhaps especially as we enter into our later years, that being able to notice and embrace the evidence of God’s activity in our lives and of the importance of loving relationships and community, can help us to grow in an attitude of gratitude and to savor every day as very precious.

     Our mature years need not be simply a time of suffering to be endured, but can have a tremendous value and benefit for us and for those around us. Carl Jung wrote, “A human being would certainly now grow to be seventy or eighty years old if this longevity had no meaning for the species to which [she or] he belongs. The afternoon of human life must also have a significance of its own and cannot be merely a pitiful appendage to life’s morning.” For many people, the afternoon of their lives is a time of complacency and being stuck in old habits and long-held ways of thinking, of resentment of the physical, emotional, and mental suffering that are a natural part of our living longer. Yet, these years can be a time to challenge ourselves in new ways. They offer us many opportunities to be a blessing and to offer our gifts of experience and wisdom to others and to our communities. These years can also give us additional time for reflection and to work intensively on ourselves, our characters, and to be in relationships more deeply and in ways we have not experienced before.

     The profound truth is that, in our mature years, we do not have less value and are no less of a gift to those around us and to the world, even when our bodies and our minds begin to fail us – although we may need to re-imagine the purpose and usefulness of our lives and how to express those in new ways. We can interpret in this way the statement about Peter in the scripture lesson from the Gospel of John: Jesus said: 
   
      “[W]hen you get old, you will stretch out your hands and someone else will put a belt around you     and take you where you don’t want to go.” “With these Words,” writes the author, “Jesus indicated     the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God.”

I suggest that Jesus was encouraging Peter to remember that he was able to love God and work for the love and justice in all the circumstances and conditions of life – even in his death.  

     Althea shared her own version of this: “As I have gotten more mature and come to a deeper realization of my own transience,” she said, “I have felt freer to speak what is on my mind – not in virulent, vicious manner, but in a thoughtful and probing way. Also, this realization has caused me to renew and revitalize my relationships with my children.”

     I am not pollyannaish about this time of life – getting older and experiencing chronic pain, diminishment of our abilities, loss, even hardship, are not always easy to bear. But, in most circumstances, we can choose whether we will respond with anger, self-isolation, surliness, and hostility, or we will see every day –  difficult as it might be – as a gift and an opportunity to love, to teach, the show compassion, and to model grace.

     We cannot talk about the last third of life without also addressing death, which is, as much as we might try to avoid it, a natural part of life. Whether we come to it early or later in life, eventually we have to facing our own mortality.

     Saint Benedict instructed, “Day by day, remind yourself that you are going to die.” He did not commend this to promote a morbid obsession with death, but as a means to focus our attention on what is important in life – in fact, to promote abundant living

     A member of our community was recently diagnosed with cancer and has been going through chemotherapy. He shared this reflection with me: 
     
      “When I was told in early September about the cancer, it really depressed me. It also made me             much more aware of my own mortality. I am more aware of how tenuous and fragile life can be.         I realized I probably have a limited amount of time...much shorter than I had imagined. That has       made me more conscious of living wisely and more reflective about what I want to do with each       day.”

His statement reminds me of the line in Bonnie Raitt’s song, “Nick of Time,” in which she seeing her parents and herself getting older and sings:

“When did the choices get so hard? With so much more at stake, 
Life gets mighty precious when there’s less of it to waste.”

     One COTV member told me that facing the reality of death and in a shorter time than he had anticipated or hoped for, has made him pay more attention to fundamental relationships and being very intentional about being in more frequent contact with a beloved sister and expressing what she means to him. He has also become more purposeful in making time to spend with his partner and not take anything in their relationship for granted. “I realize we have something precious,” he told me. 

     One Buddhist author has written, “Death is a strong message, a demanding teacher. In response to death’s message, we could shut down and become more hardened. Or, we could open up and become more free and loving. We could try to avoid its message altogether, [but] death is a persistent teacher.” Death “interrupts our delusions and habits of thought that entrap us in small-mindedness. It is an afront to the ego.” **

     Althea related the following to me: “In the past few years, I have lost many people and at a greater frequency who have been very important in my life. This has caused me to reflect more frequently on my own mortality. 

     “Accompanying my mother through long illness and dementia made death a friend. It also deepened my connection with what we call God. Dying is not a frightening prospect for me. The process of dying is the holiest time of our existence. It can be an awesome time if you enter into it graciously. 

     “When my mother died and I prepared to go to Jamaica, as I sat in a parking lot one morning and thought of the sermon I was to preach at her funeral, I was wrapped in this orb of huge, unmanageable love. I had a sense of being loved with a capacity I have never known before. I am using ordinary words to describe an extraordinary experience. The size of it was huge. Eventually, I had to ask it to stop. It was just too much. We walk inside of this love without being aware of it most of the time. This has shaped my thinking about what it means to die.”

     Focusing on our mortality challenges us to consider deeply how we live our lives – and hopefully impels us to seek to live with purpose and in deep relationship and community our whole lives and not just when we approach the last third.

     There is so much more that we could say and I hope in the coming months to facilitate a small group to continue this reflection. For now, here is my advice to the young and mature alike among us. Take the advice of St. Benedict: “Day by day, remind yourself that you are going to die.” Let this truth focus your mind and your attention so that you can avoid wasting precious time on things that do not matter in the end. 

     But more than just not wasting time, celebrate life in all the ways you can. L’chaim! To life! Remember that there is always more to learn and ways you can continue to grow. Most physical or mental incapacities you might have can be offset by the ways you can still speak out for justice, show compassion for those who are suffering, practice extravagant love, and be a model of courage, resilience, and grace. Seek ways to serve and to bless the lives of others. And, no matter what your circumstances, cherish, enjoy, and make every day of your life worthwhile.

Prayer

Holy One, help us to live as those who are prepared to die. And when our days here are accomplished, enable us to die as those who go forth to live, so that living or dying, our life may be in you, and that nothing in life or in death will be able to separate us from your great love.
Amen.

*I am grateful to Jane Marie Thibault and Richard L. Morgan, authors of Pilgrimage into the Last Third of Life (Nashville: Upper Room Books, 2012) for many of the ideas and much inspiration for this sermon.

**Judy Lief, “Death: The Greatest Teacher,” in Lion’s Roar: Buddhist Wisdom for Our Time, Vol. 2, No. 5, November 2017.



Resources
Kathleen Fischer, Winter Grace: Spirituality and Aging (Nashville: Upper Room Books, 1998). 

Judy Lief, Making Friends with Death: A Buddhist Guide to Encountering Mortality
     (Shambhala: 2001).

Joan Chittister, The Gift of Years: Growing Old Gracefully (New York: BlueBridge Books, 
     2008).

Ram Dass, Still Here: Embracing Aging, Changing, and Dying (New York: Riverhead
     Books/Penguin, 2001). 

Richard L. Morgan, Fire in the Soul: A Prayerbook for the Later Years (Nashville: Upper Room
     Books, 2000). 

Richard Rohr, Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life (San Francisco:
     Jossey-Bass/Wiley, 2011). 

Edmund Sherman: Contemplative Aging: A Way of Being in Later Life (New York: Gordian Knot
     Books/Richard Altschuler and Associates, 2010).