Thursday, June 29, 2023

Preparing our Souls for Aging - Love 1

At the heart of the Christian faith, there is our assertion that God is love.  

Without that claim, that God exists and that the nature of the Divine is love, all of the other assertions of our faith crumble to dust.  And sure, yeah, I know, we make a bunch of other statements about God.  But at their core, they are refined into a single orientation of the soul.  We are to love the God whose nature is love.

The love commandment is the bedrock assertion of all Christian theology, the self-declared summation of all of the ethical teachings of Jesus.  Wisdom without love is little more than cunning.  Hope and Faith may abide, but the greatest of these is Love.  Jesus folk know all of these things, if they've been paying even the slightest little bit of attention.

As we age, love must remain as the sure foundation of our souls.  If we are to age well, and to endure our winter season, we must hold fast to love.  Pretty words, sure, but as I have noted elsewhere, they mean little if we don't understand the reality to which they point.

Placing the love of a loving God at the heart of ourselves does two things as we age.  First, it affirms our value as persons.  Second, it connects us to others.

Loving God is a radical affirmation of the value of our personhood, a value that aging can challenge.  As our bodies age, we become less employable.  Less desirable.  Less functional.  Understood through the lenses of popular culture, we become at best "cute," in the sort of way that a French bulldog puppy is cute.  "Awww, look at the cute oldster, thinking they're a person and all."  At worst, we're a hindrance, an inconvenience that mumbles in the corner and smells like pee.  

If we only define our value in cultural terms of ability, desirability, and marketability, age can become unbearable.  We can lose our sense of worth, our sense that we have any value.  Faced with our diminishment, we can give in to the demons of resentment, self-isolation, and despair.

With its assertion that God's love is absolute and unconditional, Christian faith challenges this mindset.  We are not worthy of love because of what we can do, or for our wealth, or for our power.  We are worthy of love because all of God's creatures are worthy of love.  We bring nothing to that equation but our ability to accept that grace, and to love in return.

That is true in our youth, and at the height of our adult abilities.  It will remain equally true when we feel the weight of the years in our knees, and most of life has become a memory.  We are called to love God with all our heart, all our mind, all our strength.  Nowhere in that foundational injunction is there any mention made of it being a competition.  Or that being loved and lovable requires us to be at our peak.

We struggle with that, as we wane in life's sky.  We can have trouble seeing who we are, when our former ability fades.

L was a remarkably capable man.  Short and wiry, neatly but casually dressed, with a bright welcoming smile beneath a solid head of white hair, he was the longest standing member of my congregation when I started there O So Many years ago.

He was a former Navy man, which mattered to him, and a woodworker, which seemed to matter just as much.  He made perfectly crafted children's toys, little trucks and cars that were as meticulously assembled as anything you might find in a high-end bespoke plaything boutique for the overtherapied children of Manhattan socialites.  They were simple and beautiful, the handiwork of an artisan.  He would donate them for sale at church auctions.

The work of his hands was everywhere.  The pulpit in our tiny sanctuary sat atop a rickety prefab platform when I started there, wobbling and shaking at any movement.  Collapse always seemed like a possibility, and for liturgists who were unsteady on their feet, it wasn't the best thing.

One Sunday, I arrived to find that L had built a new platform.  Just up and done it.  Sturdy, hardwood, and pleasing to the eye, it was as solid as a concrete foundation.  He was a blessing to the church for decades and decades, and much loved by everyone.

Then L had a stroke.

"He doesn't want visitors," I was told by church folk, so I called him instead.  I didn't hear back, so I called again.  I reached him, and he clearly but pleasantly reiterated that request.  No, he didn't need or want me to call on him.  His voice was slightly muted, but still very much himself.  "No, I'd rather not have contact.  I'm fine.  I don't want you to visit or call."

He was very clear.  He was not a "lost sheep."  He said, explicitly, that he wished to be left alone.  Others who reached out did not hear back, or were told the same thing.

That was his choice, and it was to be respected.  I'm a pastor, not a stalker.  Still, it was hard.  A little heartbreaking, for those who loved him.  L was an able man for his whole life, one who valued his ability and his competence.  He didn't want to be tended to.  He didn't want to be cared for.  He wanted to contribute, and be valued for his contributions.

With his capacity diminished, it was hard for him to embrace his belovedness.  To see his value, absent his ability to be as he had been.

It made the subsequent years of aging...and his final passing...harder.  If we are to be prepared for that time, we need to understand our value as Jesus would have us understand it.