Sunday, July 30, 2023

Gathered to Our People

Abraham had a most interesting life.  It was, without question, an archetypal and mythic existence in the Joseph Campbell sense of those concepts.  His story provides the foundation for a worldview that currently defines meaning for half of the global population, 1.6 billion Muslims and 2.4 billion Christians, and the 16 million or so Jewish souls who carry on that mother faith.

At the end of those stories of his life is the story of his aging and passing.

As the twenty-fifth chapter Genesis/Beresheet tells it, Abraham lived to the ripe old age of one hundred and seventy five, to a "good old age", a b'sayvah tovah zaqen.  That age ended with him being, as most translations put in, "gathered to his people."  The word that is translated "gathered", or 'acaph, implies every form of gathering.  It can mean harvesting, or bringing in, or taking, or being brought together.  It can mean to assemble with others.

To be gathered in to one's people is, I would suggest, a marker of a life well lived.  For those of us who use Torah as a touchstone for our moral purpose, that connectedness to those around us is a defining feature of a life lived in covenant.  It is our hope in aging, because aging ain't easy, and not a one of us wants to do it on their own.  

What's striking about this scriptural concept is just how far we are from it as a culture.  Age and dying are kept at a remove from us, both materially and as part of our defining narrative.  The stories that the old have to tell aren't relevant, aren't relevant to a new generation doing new things.  Aging is best forgotten or ignored.

But covenant, like any form of deep relationship, requires more of us.  It's a defining commitment, a commitment that frames our self interest in terms of our connection to another.  Covenant is what builds community and connection.  It gathers us in, all together, an abundant harvest of grace.

It is the antidote to our culture of isolation, to the shattering of community and the blight of loneliness.  Like all commitments, it requires effort on our part.  

As I write this, I sit next to Dad as he drifts in and out of sleep.  Dad's always loved the beach, and summer visits to the seashore have been a part of my life for as far back as I can remember.  We're on the screen porch of the Delaware beach house we've rented for the last eight years.  Cool breezes come off of the Atlantic, after a night of fierce storms cleared off the heat of the summer.  The sound of the waves can be heard over the dunes.  The cry of seagulls fills the air, their brassy song softened by association with seasons of pleasure.  Fire Island.  Mombasa and Malindi.  Fripp Island.  Brighton and Margate.  And Bethany Beach, for the majority of my lifetime.

It was harder this year.  Getting him here required effort.  A packed minivan full of wheelchairs, oxygen tanks, and an oxygen concentrator.  A panoply of medications, neatly sorted for a week away, which we managed to forget in the hurly burly of getting him into the van for the trip.  Nothing an eight hour round trip drive back home that first night couldn't cure.

His CHF has worsened as the summer has progressed, his calves now morbidly plump and taut with excess fluid, his dependence on oxygen complete.  His breathing is not labored absent the aforementioned oxygen, but any effort at all is difficult.  He can no longer stand on his own, not even with a walker.  He sleeps most of the day.

The house that was fine for him when we first started renting it years ago is now something he can't access on his own.  Doors are too small for wheelchairs to pass.  The bedroom he and my mother consider theirs is on the main floor of the house, but the most homes near the up on pylons.   Three grown men were needed to get him up that flight of stairs.  It was a production.

But the beach house is where his children and grandchildren are, where there are sounds of life and laughter.  He can tell his stories, and see loved ones around him.  Having him here means he is part of us, and the extra effort required is simply what this stage of life demands.  It is not, as I consider it, any different from the years we arrived at the beach with newborns.  It's not an imposition.  It's simply what must be done.

He isn't separated out, or discarded, or warehoused away.  He's valued.  He is gathered into his people.

Friday, July 28, 2023

Age, Pleasure, and Fruitfulness

Translation matters.

The task of a translator is, as I understand it, to best convey the intent of an author while simultaneously conveying a text into the language and idiom of the culture into which the text is being translated.  It's a fine art, a careful balancing between the mother language and the receiving tongue, between one set of cultural norms and another.

Hew too tightly to the forms and expectations of the original text, and a translation can be unreadable and inscrutable.  The geist of the author does not convey.  On the flip side, if you make too many accommodations to the receiving language and culture, you erase the original, smearing one's own desires over that of the author.

Which is what I found myself looking at, as I looked at one of my favorite scriptures about aging.  It's a familiar story, one from the heart of Torah.  Abraham and Sarah are hangin' out in the shade near Mamre, when they are approached by three strangers.  Abraham offers them hospitality, welcoming them to share in a meal.  In return for that hospitality, one of the strangers bears a message: this old, childless couple shall have children.  Sarah, hearing this, laughs softly to herself.  She's old.  Ain't no way that happens.

The verse in which she laughs is Genesis 18:12, and in the New Revised Standard Version, it read like this:

So Sarah laughed to herself, saying, "After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?"

It's a polyvalent verse, meaning it bears multiple meanings.  Sarah snickers inwardly for two reasons.  The first has to do with the absurdity of her having a child at all.  I mean, she old.  I'll occasionally joke with my wife about having another kid now that our boys are grown, and she'll roll her eyes.  You idiot, she says, with a smile.

But when Sarah snickers, there's more to it than that.  As my Old Testament and Hebrew professor would say with a wink, it's also because she's sure there ain't no way Abraham is up for that.  So to speak.  Hence the use of the word "pleasure."  It's a sensual thing, and Sarah finds the idea that Abraham can still get it done amusing.

The New Revised Standard Version no longer exists, having been replaced by the New Revised Standard Updated Edition.  Honestly, that Bible name has started to get a little silly.  I mean, at what point does that stop?  Will there eventually be a New Contemporary Amended Reimagined Revised Standard Modified Updated Edition?

I probably shouldn't give anyone any ideas.

Anyhoo, in the NRSVUE, the same verse now reads:  

So Sarah laughed to herself, saying, “After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I be fruitful?”

Instead of pleasure, fruitfulness, and honeychild, those are not the same thing.

The polyvalence is squelched, the joke, undercut.  The reasons for that editorial change, as best I can tell, are to "empower" Sarah, and to insert a churchy buzzword.  The laugh becomes only about her fruitfulness as a...cough...birthing person, and the little roll of her eyes at her husband's withered limitations is erased.

It's waay less funny, lacking in the earthy viscerality that so often rises from ancient Jewish culture.  It also doesn't represent the Hebrew word ednah, which appears only three other places in scripture.  It's the feminine form of a word for pleasure, which even the NRSVUE approaches differently in every other location.  In Jeremiah 51:34, it's rendered "delicacies."  In 1 Samuel 1:24, it's "luxury."  In Psalm 36:8, it's "delights."

Delicacy? Luxury? Delights?  That ain't a way any sane person would describe the process of childbirth in the Ancient Near East, kids.  It's about the sexy sexy.  

When we view the aged, that element of their humanity can be muted or forgotten.  It's easy to forget, as we look at the old, how vital and alive they were.  We see them as only old, as if the whole arc of their lives is only defined by our perception of them in the now.  The life and energy still sings in that person, both as memory and as a lingering part of their person.  It's the great madness of so much of progressivism, that willful forgetting of the joy and vitality of what came before.

As we age, we can also forget that part of ourselves, allowing ourselves to assume that we are no longer capable of any joy, or of pleasure, or of delight, simply because we're no longer quite as spry and flexible as we used to be.   All that we once were, we are in God's eyes.  We are still children, full of promise and imagination.  We are still running fast with the sap of youth.  We are still brimming with love and life and promise.  We are wise and well-aged.  We are all of these things before our Creator, all at once.  

[April 19, 2024 Update]

As a caveat to the above: 

Nearly a year later, I found myself digging about in scripture after a semantic change in the NRSVUE Lord's Prayer put another bee in my bonnet.  That got me revisiting this post, which got me looking more intently at other translations, like the JPS and other English language translations of the Torah.  This verse showed high variance of interpretation, because...well...ednah is a hapax.  With only a handful of expressions in Hebrew, you'da thought that would have occurred to me.

One of the Jewish translations used the phrase "no longer have smooth skin" instead of "pleasure," which stirred me to dig a little deeper.  Why "fruitful?"  Because ednah may be related etymologically to several words in other ancient Semitic languages, all of which mean "level field" or "flat plain" or similar concepts relating to growth and fecundity.  It may also, from that common linguistic root, be connected to the word "Eden."

So there are reasons for the use of "fruitful," ones that go to quite solid scholarship, ones that the above post doesn't fully consider.  Seems fair to note it.


Thursday, July 27, 2023

Moral Holiness and Honoring the Aged

Within the sacred narratives of scripture, the commitment to respect and honor the old is a consistent emphasis. There's the familiar injunction which appears in both of the iterations of the Ten Commandments. In Exodus 20:12, we hear:

Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.

In Deuteronomy 5:16, that's put slightly differently:

Honor your father and your mother, as the Lord your God commanded you, so that your days may be long and that it may go well with you in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.

Those both say more or less the same thing, although the later Deuteronomic phrasing seems to acknowledge that sometimes "days may be long" doesn't mean "that it may go well." Whichever way, the commandment is essentially identical.  Giving honor to the elderly is woven up with blessings of both age and a good life in one's place.

Elsewhere in Torah, that baseline commandment is reinforced.  "You shall rise before the aged and defer to the old, and you shall fear your God; I am the Lord," intones the Creator of the Universe in Leviticus 19:32.

It's a baseline expectation of the Biblical covenant, which was also the standard expectation in most cultures of the Ancient Near East.  The concern with care for the aged is far from being an exclusively Semitic value.  It was the norm in almost every human society, a moral expectation of all premodern civilizations.

In author and doctor Atul Gawande's BEING MORTAL, for instance, Gawande describes the network of community support that sustained his century-old grandfather Sitaram in a small Indian village:

Elders were cared for in multigenerational systems, often with three generations living under one roof.  Even when the nuclear family replaced the extended family (as it did in Northern Europe several centuries ago), the elderly were not left to cope with the infirmities of age on their own...There was no need to save up for a spot in a nursing home or arrange for meals-on-wheels.  It was understood that parents would just keep living in their home, assisted by one or more of the children that they had raised. (BEING MORTAL, p. 17)

This ain't even close to being the norm in contemporary Western society.  As our family structures have been atomized by an endless fossil-fuel empowered diaspora, that cross-generational commitment has frayed.  It makes living well in the last chapter of life more challenging, even given the putative abundance of wealthy nations.

During conversations about the challenges of aging in a recent class I led at my congregation, one of the participants shared her desire not to grow old in America.  A is Ghanaian, and her observations of how the old are treated in Ghana and how the old are treated in the United States have led her to a very pointed conclusion.  Ideally, she said, she'd grow old in a Scandinavian nation.  After that, even given the limitations of the Ghanaian health system, she'd rather spend her last years in Ghana than in the United States.  "I mean, if you get very sick, the hospitals are not as good," she said.  "And you might die before you get to care.  But at least your life up until that point will be better.  So much better."  She's observed how her grandparents, parents, aunts, and uncles have all been included into the large extended households that are still the norm in her culture, and how much richer that has made their quality of life.

What was a moral norm has now faded, as has the idea of moral norms itself.  We postmoderns shy away from anything that resembles duty, any implication that our purpose extends beyond self-gratification and indulgence.  It's an ethos that masquerades as freedom, but is not.  It rises instead from consumer culture and the socially-mediated attention-deficit popcorn-brain that clouds our engagement with both past and future and keeps us imprisoned in our anxious, impulsive, profitable now.

From that solipsistic moral framework, we'd rather not be inconvenienced by the old, or by the unpleasant thought that we, too, will one day stand in their place.  

Because if we are not caring for the old, then we will not be cared for.  It will not, as the Deuteronomic scribes remind us, go well for us.  That's the nature of covenant, after all.

Wednesday, July 26, 2023

Aging in History and Scripture

There's a peculiar dissonance between aging in the world of human history and aging in the narratives of Torah.

We know, because we do, that in both the ancient world and in prehistory aging wasn't something most of us did.  What most of us did was die young.  Get a childhood illness?  You died.  Have a complicated birth?  You died.  Get an infected wound?  You died.  By the time most human beings were in their mid-thirties, they weren't finally getting established in their career.  They were dead.  

As a species, we got around this the way that all other animals get around that basic existential challenge: we reproduced in large numbers, spamming ourselves into the world.

Age wasn't something that most people did.  The idea that most human beings would make it into their seventies would have seemed impossible.

Yet the tales of Torah lay out an entirely different spin on aging.  The farther back you go, the longer people live.  In Genesis, we hear that Adam, literally "the creature of earth?"  Adam lived nine hundred and thirty years.  Nine hundred and thirty.  Methuselah, whose name was once synonymous with "very old dude?"  He lived the longest, at nine hundred and sixty nine years. 

Noah had his kids at five hundred, which sounds...exhausting.   

All of the antediluvian...meaning "before the flood"...folks in Genesis lived preposterously long lives.  If one was a literalist, which I am not, there'd be all sorts of reasons one could present.

For instance, one might argue that so close to the exile from the Garden, the first humans were closer to immortality and agelessness, a lingering echo of the deathless perfection of unmediated connection with YHWH.  That works theologically and within the text, but it's a little hard to jibe with the way the human body actually functions.  If you have any engagement with Creation as it actually and observably exists, that sort of argument isn't particularly satisfying.  

When I was a kid reading the Bible for the first time on my own, I just kinda assumed the authors of that section were using a lunar calendar, and where they said "years," they meant "months."  That breaks down when you get further in, but hey, I was nine.

Or perhaps it's a factor of the peculiar subjectivity of time, in which days seem longer when you're younger.  

Or perhaps, as historical critical scholarship suggests, the great age of the antediluvian patriarchs is a conceit of the storytelling of the Ancient Near East, where the archetypal heroes lived in a time beyond time.  In Mesopotamian literature, for instance, the legendary figures in their pre-flood narratives typically lived for thousands of years.  This directly parallels ancient Hebrew storytelling, because of course it does.  

No matter what your interpretive framework, what is clear is that age in the ancient world was viewed as a thing of great worth, something fundamentally positive.  Aging was a rarity, and those who did reach their seventies or eighties were viewed with reverence and honor.  Their lives would have spanned the equivalent of several normal lifetimes, and they would be valuable repositories of collective memory, living relationships, and experience.

In the ancient world, the old were rare and precious and valued, because so few human beings attained great age.  

What a strange and different world that must have been.

Thursday, July 20, 2023

Dad, Driving

It's grown harder and harder for Dad to move as the years have rolled by.

I first noticed it when he was in his early sixties, as it became harder and harder for him to trounce me on the tennis court.  Dad was always a cagey, fierce competitor, a tournament-level senior player.  I might have been thirty years younger, but my game was what one might politely call "recreational."  I never, ever took a game from him.  Points, on occasion.  But never a game.

Dad had a short mans' game, nimble, strategic, and accurate, a holdover from an wooden-racket era when men's tennis wasn't such a drab sport to watch, just rangey dudes bashing away from the backcourt.  Court mobility and placement were his strengths, and while the latter stuck around, the former?

Slowly, inexorably, his knees wouldn't let him move.  He still tried, still pushed, because winning mattered to him.  But I could see him hurting himself to get to the ball, see him pull up when he tried to run, a grimace breaking out on his face as pain lanced from his knees.  Were I a monster, I suppose I could have taken a couple of games off of him then.  Maybe a whole set.  But the killer instinct is not strong in me, particularly with folks I love.

Tennis faded away.  But his knees kept worsening.  Walking became harder.  We encouraged him to get the knees replaced, but he wanted to wait "because knee replacement surgery doesn't last forever, and I only want to do them once."  There was a thrifty Scots logic to that, I suppose, but it meant years of discomfort.  

Then, in his early seventies, his heart began to fail.  Bypasses.  Valve replacements.  Emergency replacements of the valve replacements.  That, plus his knees, plus his vision, plus his hip.

It wasn't simply that he couldn't walk.  It became harder to drive, harder for him to remember where he was going.  We live just fifteen minutes away, in the same house we've lived in for twenty five years.  But Dad started having trouble remembering how to get to us, as Mom...whose memory has always been a wee bit scattered...took over navigating.

And then, finally, in his early eighties and at the height of the COVID pandemic, he was diagnosed with congestive heart failure.

Suddenly, getting out was a big deal.  Walking any distance was impossible.  But driving?  Lord have mercy, was it hard to get him to stop.  Not that he loved driving, because he was the farthest thing from a car enthusiast.  Our family cars were always practical vehicles, just a way to get from point A to point B.  

But point B meant being with people, and that was what gave life savor.   It meant tennis and beer with friends, or just beer with friends.  It meant singing in the choir, and getting to rehearsals for community theater.  It meant social gatherings and dinner parties.  It meant going to movies, and going to concerts.

Driving is how you live well in America, and how you spend time with other people.  For men of his generation, it was also a marker of maleness, of virility, of capacity and competence.  And as it became less and less safe for Dad to be behind the wheel, that sense of self started drifting away.  He had to stop.  Had to.  He couldn't see.  His reaction time was shot.  He had less and less sense of where he was on the road.  He was, frankly, terrifying to drive with.

But it it is with so many of us...hard for him to admit it.  He still hasn't totally admitted it, as of this writing.  Some days he accepts that his driving days are done.  Other days, when his father's stubbornness rises up in him, he'll insist that he needs to stay in practice.  To get out and about.  In case of an emergency.

But he can't walk to the car without his walker, and can't get into it without help.  That's on a good day, when his CHF doesn't leave him so weak and winded that he can barely lift his legs.

Without mobility in a society that demands mobility, life gets so much harder.  

"Doing the Work"

The most peculiar thing about contemporary Western progressivism is how completely it has failed to engage working folks.

Marxism always managed to connect with the proletariat, to make it clear that it was worker-oriented.  The Jacobins, for all of their guillotine eccentricities and counterproductive obsession with changing everything everywhere all at once?  They still resonated with the masses.

But American leftism doesn't really have the vocabulary or worldview to connect with the workers of the world.   Why?  Because it conceptualizes "work" as meaning something very different.  It understands "work" as an abstraction, as examining and analyzing perspectives, as psychotherapeutic.  

This is nowhere better evidenced than in the prog-buzzphrase "Doing the Work."  

When suburban American progressives talk about "Doing the Work," they're talking about conceptual work.  Emotional work.  They're talking about reimagining and reckoning.  They're also talking about "justice work," which means making demands of power, organizing, and activism.

But they're not talking about "work," in the sense of things that are actually being done.  

"Doing The Work" doesn't mean doing plumbing or electrical work. It doesn't mean maintaining or repairing machines or HVAC equipment.  It isn't about preparing a field, or harvesting, or transporting that harvest.  It isn't about roofing or drywall or woodwork.  It doesn't prepare or serve food, and it ain't dishroom or pots and pans, neither.  It doesn't stitch up wounds, or fix potholes, or repair a tire.  It doesn't involve any material labor or action at all.  It's work as meta-work, work as a social construct that can mean anything at all, work distorted by the fun-house mirrors of semiotic sophistry, work as something immaterial.

Abstracted work doesn't have to change anything or move anything or make anything.  It's not labor, not as that term was ever understood in the modern era.

"The Work" involves meetings and trainings and more meetings, motions and amendments to the amendment to the motion.  It's work as the bourgeois and rentier classes have always conceptualized it, busy little bees bustling about doing the aforementioned "emotional labor."  It's the daydream of work, work as symbol, work as utopian fantasy.  Not to say that there's not pleasure in that at times.  But that pleasure comes from "work" in the same way that this blog is work, or that Facebook or tweeting is "work."

Actual work makes a difference.  Actual work, real work, material work in the physical world?  That's measured in joules and newton-meters, sweat and effort.  Most of what we do is not that.  Most of what I do is not that.  Our culture steers millions of us into ersatz labor, labor that does nothing, labor that is useless.  We know this, instinctually, viscerally.  That's one of the reasons we're all so anxious and listless.

Yesterday, before heading to church, I worked for about half an hour harvesting green beans from my raised beds.  I was squatting or on my knees in the summer sun, carefully sorting through the foliage for perfectly ripened beans.  At the end of that half hour, I had four pounds of fresh produce.  Half of that yield I kept for myself and family.  The other half I bagged for the produce stand section of my congregation's Little Free Pantry.  

I could have written a post about food insecurity in that time.  I could have Zoomed with an activist or two.  Those things would be fine, but they are not of themselves work.  Work is moving my butt outside.  Work is my quads straining, and my eyes and hands seeking out the beans, and the act of placing those beans where someone who's worried about feeding themselves can find, prepare, and be nourished by them.  There will be a change in the world because of that effort.  It will be small, it will be humble, but it will also be real.  

Work, in other words.

Wednesday, July 19, 2023

Our Home in Old Age

There comes a time when we cannot work.  

Not just "don't want to."  Not "quiet quitting," or whatever the term is now for hardly working rather than working hard.

But actually not being able to perform the tasks that any job requires.  When our bodies no longer allow us to stand and move around, and our minds struggle to hold on to short-term memories, there's just no way for us to participate in the rush and bustle of the daily grind.  The arrival of that season varies from person to person, but it comes for all of us.

When it happens, there are implications.  How do we put a roof over our balding and/or silvery heads?

For the wealthy and the propertied, there are buffers and protections.  I've seen this in my own family, and in my circle of family friends.  One good friend from the church where I grew up has moved in with her children, and to facilitate this built a comfortable, accessible addition to their home.  Another did the same thing to the home she and her husband lived in during their adult years, creating a "wing" to their house with wide doors, open and accessible bathrooms, and an elevator.  These were wise uses of the resources of worldly wealth, but most Americans don't have that option.

For those who do not have retirement savings?  Paying for our living space grows harder and harder as we lose the ability to care for ourselves.  The long-term care that is necessary to keep us in our homes as we age isn't covered by Medicare, and private long-term care insurance is both expensive and challenging to negotiate.  

Things can get really difficult, really quickly.   

During the many years I delivered for Meals on Wheels, I over and over again encountered elderly folk who were struggling to make a go of it in their homes by themselves.  Some were managing, mostly with the support of neighbors, younger friends, and nearby family.  Others were clearly past the point where they could handle life by themselves, so physically and mentally compromised that being in their home was a burden.  Those were the homes filled with piles of unopened mail and neglected possessions, the occupant either confined to a chair or obviously non compos mentis.  They were relying on home aide support that was insufficient, or had no real help at all.

Most of us prefer to stay in our homes as we age, because it's a reassuringly familiar space.  But those same homes can become a shadow place, a place filled only with the echoes of our former life.

And the 20% of elderly Americans who don't own their own homes?

Sudden surges in home prices drive up rents, and then, well, then what do you do?  "Camping" really isn't the most pleasant of options when you're young, but when can't really even walk on your own?  It's even less so. 

Medicaid does provide for nursing care for those who have exhausted their resources, but access to those nursing homes homes was never easy, and has gotten harder post-pandemic.  With a significant shortage of rooms, particularly in rural areas, those who find themselves physically unable to care for themselves can be stuck in hospitals.

It's a challenge more and more will face, as our population becomes grayer.

Saturday, July 15, 2023

Why We Still Work

In the face of our unpreparedness for retirement, many of us simply don't.

Sometimes, we continue to work because we love our work.  We continue to be able to contribute even though our bodies may ache and complain, and our minds have trouble remembering exactly why we came downstairs.  What were we getting again?    

We love the mental stimulation of labor, and we know our field, and we still have something to contribute.  There's pleasure in a job well done, and we want to enjoy that pleasure as long as we can.

But mostly, lately, Americans continue to work because we have to work.  The option of stopping our season of labor and taking sabbath at the end of a life's work simply doesn't exist, because if we took it, we would starve.  Increasingly, we're forced to continue heaving that rock up the hill, whether we take joy in it or not.

Research from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that the number of seniors remaining in the workforce will increase by nearly 100% in the next decade, as we both age and find ourselves continuing to need a regular source of income.  Though many folks retired early during the pandemic, more and more retirees are coming out of retirement, continuing to work well into old age, like Harrison Ford coming back one last time for Indiana Jones and the Greeter of Walmart.

We've got debt for medical expenses, debt for our homes, debt for our cars, debt for our children's education, and sometimes lingering debt from our own education.  St. Peter may be calling, but we can't go, 'cause we owe our souls to the company store.

Given the wild fluctuations in our "free market" economy, there's also impetus to keep our toe in the water and some skin in the game.  Retire at the wrong time, and you can find the assets that you'd assumed would be sufficient suddenly...aren't.   As we're living longer, and retiring at sixty five or sixty seven means twenty more years of life, we're likely to see some economic catastrophe or another at least once during those two decades.

I mean, seriously, we're relying on Wall Street to provide a stable, consistent, unpanicky income for our dotage?  Wall Street?  How often over our lifetimes has there been an economic crisis?  Pretty much every decade, some industry or another overheats and collapses, and all of the financial gurus go into a tizzy.  Housing loans.  Student loans.  Dot coms.  Asian Tiger markets.  Algorithm-driven selloffs.  Pandemics.  You name it, the Invisible Hand of the market is great at dropping the ball, like the world's least competent Pee Wee League wide receiver.  It's an ephemeral edifice fabricated from groupthink, avarice, and wet tissue paper, and it comes apart at the slightest whiff of crisis.

In America, it's always the wrong time to retire.  Always.

We know this because we can see it, and so we don't retire.

Friday, July 14, 2023

We are All Unprepared

Best I can tell, I will be able to retire eventually.  This was once the general assumption of most Americans, the expectation that when you reached the end of middle age, you'd set down your labors and spend your dotage travelling or puttering around in a golf cart through some sprawling community in Florida.

That is no longer the case.  With the collapse of the Soviet Union back at the end of the last century, American businesses no longer had any impetus to provide cradle to grave care for their workers.  "Hey, wait, there's no longer a competing ideology that forces us to do more for our workers or risk having them rise up?  Guess we can find some more profit this next quarter."  Health care?  Heh.  Sort of, barely.  Retirement benefits?  Sure...but the risk is all on you, and the rewards mostly accrue to those who "handle" the trillions that pour into the markets.  

That, coupled with a culture that celebrates the debt-financing of life, immediate gratification over long term planning, and fetishizes youth and adolescence?  We are, as a people, catastrophically unprepared for aging.  We just ain't ready.  Not even faintly.

And we are aging, all at once, thanks to the great pulse of Baby Boomers who have defined our culture for a generation.  They are, all together, getting older.

A recent study by the Urban Institute  lays out some pretty challenging statistics about this grey wave.  By 2040, the percentage of the population that is over 65 will have nearly doubled from where it was in 1980.  The number of individuals in the oldest category, those who require the most care and are least able to fend for themselves?  It'll be quadruple what it was in 2000.

Life expectancy has continued to rise, so those who are old will be old longer, living a decade or more deeper into age than they did a generation ago.

With that shift, Social Security...which we've very much not prioritized...will come under significant pressure.  With fewer working age folks supporting more older folks, that financial safety net will fray under the strain.  We've pushed off doing anything about it for forty years, and the bill is coming due, no matter how much magical thinking we apply to the subject.

Our failure to prepare as a nation is mirrored by our failure to prepare as individuals.  It's one of the peculiarities of a republic, as the ethics of debt play out both in the halls of Congress and our own ever-expanding credit card balances.  

Right now, as of this writing, the average Social Security benefit stands at just over fifteen hundred dollars a month.  Nearly half of Americans have no retirement savings at all, which means the average American household has about twenty one thousand dollars socked away for retirement.  If you retire at 67, and live until you're in your eighties, twenty one thousand dollars doesn't quite cut it, and fifteen hundred a month runs through your fingers real quick lately.

Having enough financial reserve to make it more than ten months into an American retirement means you need to be, relatively speaking, rich.

My wife and I don't seem rich, at least not on the surface.  We live in a 1,300 square foot rambler on a quarter acre suburban lot.  This is about half the size of the average new American home.  It's where we raised our kids, and while it was snug when there were four of us, its plenty of room for two.  Our cars are functional and reliable Hondas, utterly unsexy and leaning towards efficiency and practicality.  I ride to work and run errands on a Yamaha scooter, which gets over 80 to the gallon.  As a small church pastor and author, my annual income over the last decade has averaged $35,000 a year, which...isn't much.  

But scratch the surface, and we're almost painfully privileged.  Rich, even.  My wife's consulting business has done quite well over the last few years, in a King Lemuel's Wife sort of way.  Rache and I own our home outright, so we have no mortgage.  We own our cars outright.  We have no debt.  None at all.  We live small, and live lean, and have consistently over a lifetime spent less than we made.

Our savings, for retirement and otherwise?  Over One Million Dollars.  That's not what it used to be, in an Austin Powers Doctor Evil sort of way, but it's nearly fifty times higher than the typical American retirement reserve.  This isn't cause for bragging or pride, for peering over the high walls of my family wealth-fortress at the helpless rabble beneath me.  I feel almost embarrassed that I even have the option of stepping away from work later in life, because so many others do not.  

Taken as a whole, we're just not ready.  The morning has come, and we're sitting in class on the day of the final, and we're staring blankly at questions for which we don't have answers.

Thursday, July 13, 2023

The Dangerous Neighbor

The carpenter bee was dying.  There, on the walkway leading to my front door, it struggled to move, stumbling forward, wings humming feebly, unable to take to the air.  Normally, that would feel like a tiny tragedy, as bees are always welcome in my yard, but I am of two minds about carpenter bees.  

On the one hand, they're pollinators, vital for my garden and the future of our world.  On the other, they have over the years carved neat hole after hole into the painted wooden awning supports and siding of my home. 

By later in the day the thick-fuzzed yellow-black body was an unmoving corpse, and the reason for its demise soon became apparent.  I noted a new inhabitant entering the neat circular hole formerly belonging to the bee.  It was a wasp, large, starkly striped and fierce of appearance.  It was the obvious culprit, and had taken the bee's hidey-hole by force, a lethal winged conquistador.  

Rache and I sat out on our porch under that hole in the late afternoon, as our new neighbor hummed about near us.  Rache wondered aloud whether it was dangerous, because it sure did look that way.  Should I take it out?  It was tempting.  Bees are all fuzzy and cute, even the more troublesome ones, but wasps?  Wasps just look hard, purposeful and ready to fight you.  This one was nearly hornet-sized, and looked like it could deliver some serious hurt.  Was it a threat?

I didn't know the answer to her question, which I quickly remedied.  The critter turned out to be a variety of mason wasp, a species that will routinely attack and kill carpenter bees for the sole purpose of stealing their nests for their own.  They're not aggressive like those devil-spawned yellowjackets, cursed may they be.  You leave mason wasps alone, they leave you alone.  They're no more likely to sting than the carpenter bees, but when they do, their sting is indeed hornet-fire agony.  That was a little unsettling.

As I read more, though, I started to warm to the wasp.  Mason wasps don't just murder bees and steal their homes, which seems low karma even in the insect world.  They're builders, who don't do any damage to human houses themselves, preferring to create mud structures when they're not getting killy killy with some hapless bee.  The wasps also pollinate as they fly from flower to flower in search of pollen and nectar, if not quite as effectively as bees.  Beyond flower feeding, they also do something that carpenter bees do not: they hunt and eat caterpillars, both for themselves and to cart back to feed their young.

To which I thought, huh, they go after caterpillars?  Caterpillars are not my friend.  They'd devastated my greens, year after year, to the point where I now grow other crops.  They've nibbled away at squash.  I don't use pesticides on my garden, not ever, so when the munchy worms appear, I don't have a whole bunch of options.

All of a sudden, that lethal-looking blackstriped wasp was looking a whole bunch more welcome, less like a threat, and more like a new ally.  Like having a feral cat hunting mice in the granary, or a stray dog who takes to watching the henhouse and chasing away foxes.

Only slightly less pettable.  For now, they're welcome to stay.

It's always best to learn more about a new neighbor before jumping to conclusions.

Wednesday, July 12, 2023

Masks, Roles, and Retirement

I dreamt, on a recent night, that I was no longer a pastor.

It was, as I considered it over the next morning's coffee, the subconscious manifestation of a thought that I have on a recurring basis: what am I going to do when I retire?  There will come a point, and it's not far off, when I'll be of retirement age.  In just over a decade and change, as I step into my late mid-sixties, I'll be sufficiently far along in this mortal coil that my denomination encourages folks to step aside for a younger and nominally more vital generation.  

It can be a difficult thing, making the transition away from a profession that comes to define your identity.  We're used to being thought of in a certain way, and standing in relationship to others in a certain way.  We take on our vocation as a mask, one that defines how we are seen, one that comes to shape our personhood in ways we're reluctant to release.

This conflation of our work with our identity can make the process of aging more spiritually challenging.  Who are we, if we are not the thing that fills our days?  Where does our sense of self lie, when the mooring lines that hold us release?

It's be nice to say that those in spiritual leadership handle this transition more effectively than other souls.  Because as we all know, pastors and rabbis, imams and priests and gurus?  Utterly without ego. To which, I hope, you uttered a sad, knowing little laugh.

More often than we'd like to admit, those of us who fancy ourselves leaders of faith folk pour so much of ourselves into our role that we can't imagine being anything else.  We don't allow ourselves to be anything else while we're in that role, as we become utterly consumed by the needs of our community.

This doesn't work so well.  Assuming burnout doesn't immolate our sense of vocation, that compulsion to be needed leaves us poorly prepared to slow down when age requires it.  Who are we, if we are not the One With The Answers, the Manager of Everything, the Putter Out of Fires, the Conduit to the Divine?  When that mantle is lifted from our shoulders, it's easy to find that we no longer recognize that lined face in the mirror.  Who even is that?  Who are we?

It's necessary to ground our souls on something more solid.  To prepare for what is to come.

First, it's essential that we develop a sense of self that rests on more than just what we "do."  I love my vocation, I do, but there are other facets to my person.  I read, wantonly and wildly, and enjoy few things more than settling in with a library book.  I tend to my garden, puttering about weeding and seeding and watching the miracle of life rise from the soil.  I game, enjoying virtual narratives and simulated worlds.  I write, spinning out my thoughts in blog posts that five people read, or tell stories that I want to hear told.  I enjoy film, both classic and current.  I enjoy live performances, and travelling with Rache.  

I've done these things for years, because waiting until one has retired to develop things that bring you joy is a fool's error.  So long as God is willing, I will continue to do them.

Second, I understand my vocation as both a calling and a season.  When I dreamed I was no longer a pastor, it was a good dream of a coming season.  I was working with others in a church, as we prepared for an upcoming event.  Being a dream, that event was a little hazy, something to do with a meal that was open to all.  In that dream, I was working with others, but I wasn't running the show.  I was just one of the laborers, as the group discussed and planned.

I was, in other words, in a place where I was simply a Christian, one disciple among many.  It's a good thing to be, and living into that grace has always been the extent of my faith-aspirations.  It's what I teach, and what I preach, and how I try to live.  With the emphasis on "try."

I've always understood pastorin' and the ordination to my role within the church as a functional thing.  Meaning, I'm a Minister of Word and Sacrament only as long and insofar as I preach and baptize, teach and serve at the Lord's Supper.  That ordination is a question of function, not inherent and permanent authority.  Once I'm not doing those things, I am not a Minister.  I can stop the cosplay, take off the silly collar shirt and my careworn academic robe and return to being one servant among many.  I will remain a Teaching Elder into retirement, but not a pastor, not unless I am doing pastorly things.

In my little congregation, almost everyone has been ordained to serve as an elder at one point or another.  That's just the way little churches roll. They're all still Ruling Elders, technically speaking, but functionally?  You're only Buildings and Grounds Elder when wrangling aging HVAC and mending leaking roofs is your specific responsibility, thank the Good Lord.  You're only the Worship or Stewardship or Mission Elder for a season.  After that, the ordination goes fallow until another season of labor is required.

Should I have the good fortune to reach the moment of Honorable Retirement, With All the Rights and Privileges Thereunto, I will be content to be simply another servant among servants, one living in my sabbath season.


Monday, July 10, 2023

Unborn that Way

Taylor looked up from the screen of their flat and across the central square.  It was still midmorning, at the heart of the first shift.  Everyone should be working, or in the Edcenter.  But it was a beautiful spring day, the air tart and clean, the sky a perfect blue, speckled with little puffy clouds.  It was as good as the best Virtual, only with that little bit extra, that unreplicable kiss of a soft breeze on your hand, that complex stirring of organic scent, new flower and chlorophyll and the rising of life after winter.

The square was bustling, because of course it was.  Technically, it was firstshift on a workday, but it was also the day after Matchday, and everyone knew what that meant.  The whole world slowed down after Matchday.   Tall oaks and maples planted a century ago cast down beneficent shade, the light playing down through their breeze teased leaves.  Couples and throuples and polys mingled and laughed and lounged on the grass, balancing worklife on the lifeside.   At the center of the park, a single deactivated combat and interdiction golem sat powered down and at peace, the lenses of its sensorium gazing fixed up at the blue, weapons binnacles empty, a statuary reminder of victory in the Culture Wars centuries ago.  

In the shadow of the great ancient bipedal machine, the young, teeners and twenties, connecting with their matches, and their energy sparkled, casual and flirtatious and excited.  

Which made this whole thing harder.  

Every one of these groupings, Taylor knew, had Clearance.  Had received the necessary reviews and approvals.  Had been matched with viable partners, single or multiple.

But Taylor themselves had not.  They had waited, hoping their message tone would chime on their flat, just like it had for everyone else they knew.  Excited chatter had filled the dorm as the day progressed, rising with each tone.  That chatter had subsided again as the afternoon waned, had grown more quiet as other dormies had gone out into the cool spring night to meetngreet their matches.  

Taylor'd not made a fuss of it, not called attention to themselves, trying not to detract from the pleasure of the day.  They'd tried to fade out of view, not to Be That Person.  Riley and Avery had noticed, of course, dear old friends that they were, and the three of them had huddled in a sympathetic klatch for a while. "I'm sure it's nothing," Riley'd said, smiling.  "You're just so lovely and compats with everyone." "Just a glitch," Avery affirmed.  "They'll be in touch soon.  You are beautiful and loved." 

But Riley's match was in Zone 9, and Avery's in Zone 19, and after staying as long as they could, they both left with a similar reluctant sigh.  

Finally, finally, long hours after everyone else, the message had come through.  It wasn't a match, or matches.  It wasn't the particulars of their Compatibility Cleared.  Just a terse formal instruction to report to the Region 12 Intimacy Coordination Center.  Not to Advisor Hayden, who had been super helpful, not to Testing for some additional assessment, but to report to the Office of the Senior Regional Intimacy Coordinator.  No details.  Nothing about why.  Taylor'd felt like the bottom of the world had fallen out, a cold stone in their stomach.

Across the park, through a gauntlet of happy hormones, stood the elegant glass edifice of the Regional Coordination Center.  On the ninth floor, in suite 9.077, the Senior Regional Intimacy Coordinator waited.

Taylor took a deep breath, and started forward through the throng.


"I know you're anxious to know what this is all about," Senior Regional Intimacy Coordinator Mx. Turnberry said, after Taylor had settled into a proffered chair.  Turnberry was a small person, with busy little hands that fidgeted across the surface of their neat, expansive desk.  Behind them, the window was bright with the light of morning, their face gently shadowed.

"Anxious is a good word for it," Taylor returned.  

"Let me reassure you.  You've done nothing wrong.  You are beautiful and loved."

"Beautiful and loved," Taylor repeated, but without enthusiasm.

"I won't lie to you.  We have a...complication."  The word chilled the room.

Mx Turnberry fiddled with their flat for a moment, then continued.  "Same gender attractants used to be embedded in the broader population, forced to keep themselves hidden by retrogressive and oppressive norms.  Same gender attractions and variant gender identities were forcibly suppressed, which we all acknowledge now was a terrible, terrible thing.  The Awakening changed all of that, and the Culture War finalized it, although it took most of a century, we together finally did the work to free the norms of culture from that primitive way of thinking.  It's been three hundred years since we cast all of that aside."

Taylor pursed their lips, waiting impatiently for the familiar monologue to end.  "I mean, of course, I know this, this is elementary ed stuff.  Why are you telling me this now?"

"There's a..."  Turnberry flushed, slightly.  "Let me be more direct.  There's a problem with your intimacy matching."  

"A problem?"

"We...uh...don't have any matches in system for you right at the moment."


Mx. Turnberry shook their head.  "Not at the moment."

"But the testing?  The assessments?  The psychexam and ideologograms?  Those results were...I thought I had passed."

"You did.  You did exceptionally well," affirmed Turnberry, earnestly.  "You are beautiful and loved, wonderful just as you are."

"Then why...what's going on?  Everyone I know is being matched.  What's wrong with me?  You're not telling me something."  Taylor's thoughts circled, swirled, repeated.  "What's going on?"

"I know this is potentially traumatizing," said Turnberry, their voice measured.  "And be assured that I will do everything in my power to fix this.  You deserve an answer.  Let me show you something."

Turnberry swept their fingers across the haptics on their flat, and a neat hidef holo appeared.  Graph lines snaked across a glowing grid, frequency tracked over time.  "It wasn't really something anyone considered, back when we came to better understand the fluidity and variability of gender.  Cisbinidenting folx like myself and my partner could always choose to live into their birth gender.  After the Culture War, those who chose differently were finally free to have full autonomy over their bodies and gender identities.  No-one would ever again be forced to live into the false assumed binary of tradsexuality."

The graph glowed and shifted, a line spiking upwards, holding, then descending precipitously.

"That freeing came with a price, one that became more evident as time passed.  It's well known that queer identities are a fluid social construct.  But...ah...they're also genetic.  A question of an individual's brain structure and hormonal balance.  We are born into ourselves, our particular and uniquely beautiful identities shaped by the genetic contributions of our birthing person and our seeding person."

Taylor closed their eyes, and suppressed an impatient groan.  "Yeah yeah yeah.  I know this."

"Given the choice to live into their gender and our prior overpopulation, a supermajority of queer folx chose, well, they chose not to reproduce."

"A right is chosen, a new world flows in," Taylor murmured, their words involuntarily following the lyrical cadence of the old kindergarten song.

"It does," said Turnberry.  "Of course.  It's the responsible choice, particularly as we right-populated into the collective reimagining of our ecology.  Which is what makes the outcome so very...." they paused, genuine pain on their face.  "Ironic.  Or tragic.  Some combination of the both."

Taylor's eyes widened.  "What are you saying?  I can't be..."

"Seventeen generations, in which queer folx reproduced at a rate less than one quarter that of an already intentionally reduction-focused tradsexual population.  Genetic screenings of embryo slates for Wellbaby and Chosenchild Parenting Preference Protocols also had a nontrivial impact.  The genetic predispositions to certain identities that had always passed along covertly under oppressive hegemonic tradsexual reproduction norms just...didn't.  Pass along, I mean."

There was a pause, then Turnberry continued.  "Have you known anyone who shared your identity?"

"I haven't.  But I thought...I assumed..."  Taylor's voice petered out, choked away by a rising dread.  They went on.

"Are you...are you saying that people like me were...bred out of existence?"

The Coordinator struggled to meet Taylor's gaze. "No no no no.  'Bred' is an assumption of imposition.  This wasn't some perverse twentieth century eugenic nightmare.  It was a choice, one made by millions, one that affirmed identities and birthing preferences and the social good, one informed by the intersection of gender and climate, one that..."

"But you're saying there are no more actually queer people."

Turnberry looked a little distressed.  "No, we would never say that, of course we're all queer in our own way, and mutations do occur regularly even in a hypermajority tradsexual population.  There will always be some."

"How many?  How many like me right now?"  Taylor's voice, tinged with heat.

Turnberry flushed.  "'s a little.."

"You're the Senior Regional Intimacy Coordinator.  You know the answer, and it's my right as a citizen to know.  How many?"


"Only seven in the region?  That's so few.  Almost no-one."

Turnberry inhaled through their nose, let out a long sigh.  "Oh, Taylor.  That's not what I'm saying.  Seven total unassigned in your age moeity, for all regions, everywhere.  Four are unpaired same gender attracted birthing persons, two are birthing-person-presenting post-transition, alternate gender attractant.  And there's you."


"Just you."

There was a long silence.  "I'm the only gay man on the planet?"

Turnberry recoiled as if struck.  "You know we don't ever use those ur-fascist heteroassumptive terms, Taylor."  Their voice edged colder, repressing their offense at the slurs.  "You know better.  But you're upset, so I'll let that pass without dinging your social score.  But yes.  You are the only cisbinidenting same gender attractant seeding person currently in the global dataset.  Within your age moiety and psychodemography."

"I'm sorry.  I'm...but...but maybe the moieties above me?  Older?  Younger?  Maybe there's some..."

"They're not matches.  We've tried.  Their pairings/groupings are too settled, or their testing indicates unacceptable levels of compatibility.  The numbers are just so low."

Taylor slumped back into their chair.  "I...what can"

Turnberry softened.  "Look.  This is so, so upsetting.  Traumatizing.  Not just for you.  For all of us.  This has been taken to the highest levels, to all of the Regional Intimacy Coordinators.  Even Global's paying attention.  We're monitoring all tests, we've prioritized your Match.  You'll have your Matchday, you will.  Just not now."

Mx. Turnberry looked as earnest as they could.  "You're an important person to all of us.  You are beautiful and loved."

The platitude, like a cold wind in the leaves.  A hiss rose in Taylor's ears, and the world spun.  Beautiful. Loved.  

But not now.

Tuesday, July 4, 2023

The Future Church and the Aging

I've been writing a whole bunch over the last several months, as I reflect on faith and aging.  But in all of it, I'm not sure which church I'm writing for.  

There's no question that my particular denomination is dying.  The Presbyterian Church USA is aging out, and not replacing ourselves.  Within my lifetime, the broader denomination cannot continue its current form.  We'll fragment, or restructure, or collapse, but we're likely already past the inflection point for collective viability.  

This is part of a larger challenge for the oldline denominations, those manifestations of early modern era Protestantism.  Methodists and Baptists, Lutherans and Episcopalians, all of us are growing old.   While some individual churches are pressing back against that tide, they're outliers.

This poses something of a conundrum, because there are younger churches out there.  They have young families and middle aged folks, kids programs and They're not structured on the denominational model, but on the "nondenominational" franchise/corporate model.  They're evangelical and contemporary, continually adapting and finding relevance, shifting worship and music and community life to mirror the expectations of culture.  

That's not my preference, of course, but that doesn't matter.  Those communities are going to continue, even in the face of shifting social norms about faith.  When I've attended worships in the big mega corporate congregations, they've been diverse and vibrant and materially successful.  The one demographic that's been missing: the old.  Old folks just aren't there, because the worship style and the music have moved on.  Contemporary Christianity has left the saints behind.  

The church is segregating as our culture is segregating, with the elderly continuing to be faithful in churches that aren't societally resonant, that are dying off as they die off.

What happens, then, to those saints who have worked to maintain their churches and communities?  The prayerful souls who run the food pantries and clothing drives, who provide material resources to those in need?  What happens to those who've spent their whole lives being faithful, but now find the congregations they've been a part of for decades drying out in the sun as the tide recedes?

It goes deeper, though, beyond simply caring for other Christians.  

There will be millions of Americans who find themselves without supportive family structures, without communities around them that can manage their care, and without the material resources to sustain themselves as they lose the ability to work.  The "safety net" of Social Security will have frayed through neglect, and we'll all be struggling to adapt to a harsher, hotter planet.  It "ain't for sissies" now, but our future shows every sign of being a harder time to be old.

It is possible, of course, that our society will change course, and realize that the future we've created for ourselves isn't one we want to inhabit.  This is possible, but improbable.

As our broader culture ages, he churches that have adapted and remain standing need to see seniors for what they are: human beings who are a field for mission, Christian care, and evangelism.

Monday, July 3, 2023

Preparing Our Souls for Aging - Love 2

Second, the love of God provides a radical affirmation of love for others.  For strangers.  For enemies.

As we get older, the world can become a frightening place.  Everything becomes more dangerous.  A simple walk to the bathroom can be fraught with peril, as one missed step can change or end a life.  That, and our culture now changes constantly around us.  The endless rush to obsolescence and corporate capitalism's relentless remaking of the world means that we can no longer rely on a lifetime of learning and experience.  A once familiar world is suddenly strange and unpredictable and complicated, and that unsettles us.  Makes us feel like we're not sure about the ground under our feet.  That's true both figuratively and literally.

When we feel our vulnerability, our strangeness in a strange land, it becomes easy for us to perceive threats everywhere and in everyone.   Everyone is stealing from us.  Everyone is suspect.   That fear of the strange and the unsettling is pretty much the entire business model of most contemporary media, be it right or left leaning.

As we get older, we need to take care.  Sure.  That's true.  But it's easy to become so hypervigilant against an endless stream of scammers and hucksters and charlatans that we may lose our ability to recognize where God is placing others in our lives.   That's perhaps less true of those who are old right now, but it's going to be a challenge for those of us who will age into the world shaped by the internet.  When we can't trust that the call from our adult child is really a call from our adult child, that both the number and the voice on the other end might be faked, how will we relate to the world?

From that place of fearfulness, the tendency towards social isolation can intensify.  Without stable and sustained face-to-face social ties, places of deep connection to local community, we will find ourselves in a more challenging place than prior generations.  Family structures, for many, have become much more complicated and fragmented, and may prove less of a support.  Friendships are wonderful, but as we tend to befriend our own age demographic, those social networks will age with us.

Right now, are you laying the groundwork for life at the end of life?  Being part of an intergenerational community of faith is a vital part of that experience.  Here, I'm not speaking from the standpoint of crass self-interest.  "Golly, I really need to be part of a church so they'll take care of me."  Nope.  That's not the point, although we will.  That's how we roll, insofar as we are able.

Being part of a church teaches the lifeway of aging, ingraining the ethic we need to age well into us.

We learn what we will need to know as we age by connecting with those who are living through that phase of life, by visiting and befriending and being part of the lives of those further along in life's journey.   Our duty to care for our elders, to honor our mothers and fathers?  That duty must manifest itself when we are younger, because if we fail in that moral imperative, we can expect to reap the harvest of our neglect.  The measure we give, as Jesus so succinctly put it, is the measure we will receive.

Still and all, while being part of a gathering of Christ-followers increases the probability that we will have supportive community around us as we age, it's not a guarantee.  

We may find ourselves in a place where we are cared for by strangers, where those who shepherd us through to our conclusion are neither family nor part of a now-faded social circle.

If that is how we age, then we need to prepare our souls with the discipline of loving strangers.  Because how we treat those who tend to us and get us to the toilet and clean and feed our frail bodies will matter.  If we resent or fear the different, belittle or denigrate those who care for us?  We ourselves will be diminished, not just physically, but spiritually.

Christian faith teaches us to be humble, to accept care with grace, to consider every soul we encounter as a human person worthy of love.  The time to start practicing that discipline of the heart is right now.  Do you love the stranger?  Do you treat those around you with patience and respect, no matter their social status, or your relationship to them?

Are you eager to hear their stories, to connect to the personhood of those you find around you?  Have you allowed the Spirit to root out your pride and bitterness, fear and resentment?  The one who finds us and cares for you, after all, will be our neighbor.