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Aging among the Community of Faith

Acquired disability is the norm as we age. An acquired disability occurs after birth, typically from accident, illness, or increasing age. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 71 percent of Americans aged eighty and older have a disability. Statistics Canada has found that 43 percent of Canadians over seventy-five live with a disability.

Besides the loss of abilities including sight, hearing, mobility, memory, and intellect, other losses increase with increasing years. With these disabilities come other losses, including the ability to drive, to engage in beloved activities, to interact with friends and family, and to care for oneself. One former parishioner of mine slowly pulled into a shell as his hearing loss grew more profound. Though many older people prefer to age in place, mobility challenges can bring loneliness by keeping people at home or “shut in.” Death separates and isolates as people outlive friends, siblings, and even children. While many older adults relish the opportunity to retire, that too brings loss of cherished work relationships, responsibilities, and income.

The psychologist Erik Erikson theorized eight stages of psychosocial development, with each stage representing the resolution of a crisis brought on by that stage of life. Erikson called life’s final stage “Integrity vs. Despair.” In late adulthood, he said, people do more reflecting on life than looking forward. Looking back, they may feel a sense of satisfaction or of failure. According to Erikson, the greatest loss one can experience in the final years is the belief that her life was wasted. The depth and multiplicity of these losses can lead one, he said, to “despair.”

Giving Perspective on Loss

I have a friend (I’ll call him Sam) who lost much of his speech several years ago after experiencing a stroke. When I visit, we still enjoy conversation as best we can. Since his stroke, we sing a few hymns together as well. Although the words come haltingly when he speaks, they flow smoothly from his lips when we sing. On my last visit, we sang with such vigor that one of the staff came to thank us for the beautiful music after we finished “Precious Lord, Take My Hand,” Dorsey, LUYH 465, GtG 834, PsH 493 and “When Peace Like a River.” Spafford, LUYH 451, PsH 489

Sam, a retired pastor, had continued to preach and to play the organ well into retirement. For months after his stroke, he did little but cry. Speech was impossible for him at first, and his right side was paralyzed. Though speech has made a partial comeback, the paralysis remains. In one fell swoop, Sam lost his ability to drive, play the organ, and speak as well as much of his ability to care for himself. Though Sam’s sadness was deep, he has grieved his losses and found a new space for life as it is now.

Healthy worship forms faith so that it can give perspective on the losses. In a sermon at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. (February 17, 2019), columnist Michael Gerson reflected on his hospitalization for depression and the challenges that any loss brings into our lives. Toward the end of his sermon, he said, “Many, understandably, pray for a strength they do not possess. But God’s promise is somewhat different: That even when strength fails, there is perseverance. And even when perseverance fails, there is hope. And even when hope fails, there is love. And love never fails.”

Though life brings loss on various levels, no believer will ever lose God’s love. If Erikson is correct that people grow toward integrity or despair in their later years, then worship needs to ground people in God’s love every week so that losses never have the last word. God’s love through Jesus Christ allows us to know that God holds us in our losses and forgives us for our mistakes and sins. We can look back on our lives through God’s loving eyes and see our younger selves with the same graceful tenderness with which God sees us. Healthy worship doesn’t just give perspective on loss; it shapes identity.

Shaping Identity

If you ask church leaders about their responsibility to older members who have disabilities, pastoral care will often be at the top of their list. Acquired disability brings multiple losses into a person’s life. Most of us wrap much of our identity around what we do. One might say, “I am a musician,” or “I am a hunter,” or “I am a quilter.” When one loses the ability to make music, to hunt, or to quilt, one may wonder, “Who am I?”

Healthy worship grounds and shapes the identity of worshipers of every age. As the foundations of identity get shaken throughout life, our identity in Christ remains the solid foundation on which to live out our final years.

Theologian John Swinton roots his understanding of Christian identity in Colossians 3, which begins,

Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God (vs. 1–3).

Swinton argues that none of us knows our true identity. It is not found in what we do, nor what we remember, nor our looks, nor our personalities. Rather, our identity is hidden with Christ in God. God alone holds the keys to our true identity. God loves us, holds us, strengthens us, and empowers us to build his kingdom through the power of the Holy Spirit. Although our identity rests with God rather than with ourselves, God calls all of us to serve him no matter our age or ability. God calls his people to participate in community life.

Celebrating Participation

The apostle Peter wrote, “Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms” (1 Peter 4:10). All of us know older adults who are healthy, vigorous, and active participants in the church community. When Peter calls believers to be faithful stewards of God’s grace, our individualistic culture centers on individual older people who are engaging their gifts and energy in community life well. But stewarding God’s grace is a responsibility not only of each individual but also of the entire community. When others write someone off because her acquired disability changes the way she can participate in community, the community fails at stewarding her gifts. When the community invites everyone to participate regardless of their age or ability, the community welcomes every way that God seeks to enrich that community through each one’s gifts.

Just as our true identity is hidden with Christ in God, so also is our true purpose. When we are young, most of us ask ourselves, “What do I want to be when I grow up?” In old age, many of us ask, “What’s the point of my life?” At their heart, these questions are the same question asked from different ends of the age spectrum. Although we’ll never know the full purpose of our lives, we do know that our lives are hidden with Christ in God (Colossians 3:1–4). However much life shakes us, we can rest on that unshakable foundation. Healthy congregational life does not provide that foundation, but affirms it and helps people as a community to rest upon it throughout life.