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Giftedness: A Spirituality for the Later Years
To propose "giftedness" as a paradigm for spirituality in the later years may seem rather odd, for isn't the process of aging more akin to entering into the passion of Christ? Both models fit the experience of growing old, but most of the time we dwell on the losses and multitude of sufferings that accompany old age, rather than the new gifts aging can bring. In the Lord's Prayer, when we ask, "Give us this day, our daily bread" we are demonstrating implicit trust that if we ask, each day will bring just the right gifts God knows we need to nurture our bodies, minds, and souls. This is no more true in young adulthood than it is in very old age. The gifts are right there in God's hands to be given: the real question is -- are we ready to receive them?
Our modern, Western society asserts that aging is primarily a process of deterioration, disequilibrium, disorientation and, finally, death. Although it is the prevailing model, it is only one view among many. Traditional Jewish teaching sees old age itself as a blessing. Asian cultures view elders as gifts to the family and larger community. Buddhism does not distinguish aging as a special time -- for the Buddhist, the goal of personal enlightenment can take place at any time in the person's life. For the Hindu, age is marked by the first gray hair and/or the birth of the first grandson. At this point the person sheds concern for the material world and embarks on the final spiritual adventure -- renunciation of the ego, the small self, and purification in preparation for death and rebirth into a more advanced life.
What is the Christian view of aging? Christianity espouses three discrete models of aging; aging as a blessing, aging as a process of growth, and aging as an opportunity for religious and ethical witness. It is to the first two models that I will devote this paper, since to view aging both as a gift and time of growth seems to be alien to the culture's common perceptions.
Let's discuss the model of "giftedness" first. What does it mean in Christian terms to assert that aging is a gift, a blessing? I believe that Christianity offers good news at all stages of life; the longer one lives the longer one can receive the daily bread of Christ's love and, in turn, be that bread for others.
A few years ago a Presbyterian pastor friend and I were exchanging thoughts about aging during a break between lectures at a conference on spirituality and aging. He has a large congregation of older adults and enjoys visiting them in their homes, where they are more apt to share with him how it really is in their inner and outer lives. In the course of our conversation, he stunned me with the following statement, "More and more frequently I am hearing older adults say to me things like, 'I can't relate to Jesus or the Christian message any longer. The Gospel calls for actions that only younger people can accomplish,' and 'Jesus knew nothing about aging…he died at 33!', and 'Even though he was in horrible pain, he had to endure it only three hours…I've been in excruciating pain with rheumatoid arthritis and shingles for sixteen years, with no end in immediate sight!' and 'The stories of the old people like Abraham and Sarah, the Psalms, and Lamentations give me more comfort than the Gospel does now that I am old -- when I read the gospel I feel guilty because I can't feed the hungry and clothe the poor.'"
He asked if I had encountered any of these statements and I said that I had not, but I had not asked for nor had I been particularly open to them. It had taken an extremely sensitive pastor to elicit so much trust that his parishioners could express their deepest doubts about the religion they had practiced all of their lives.
Intrigued, I went out to do my own search and heard surprisingly similar comments. Generally people -- particularly "cradle Christians"-- were very guarded when expressing criticism of their life-long faith. They did not believe they had left their faith, but that they had adopted a different focus. Where for years their face had been turned to Christ, now it was turned to the elders of Christianity's foundation whom they found in the Old Testament. They saw themselves as going back to their "roots," just as many of them had taken up a study of their own family's genealogy.
I became obsessed with my findings, and I began asking myself, What is the good news in the Good News for older adults? Is the Gospel really only for youth, younger adults, and middle-aged people? Could a person "outgrow" Christ, as one woman put it? Can Christianity "speak" to the issues in the lives of older adults, particularly the losses? Does the perception on the part of elders that they have outgrown Christianity have implications for the future of Christianity as we know it? How could I investigate these questions?
After much thought and prayer, I decided to list the ten greatest fears older adults (particularly the frail elders) have with regard to their aging process. The list of fears that emerged was not gleaned from formal research, but from the myriad conversations I have had over the past twenty-six years with elders I have counseled. Here is the list:
"I am afraid to die because I haven't been good enough to go to Heaven. I am afraid of God's anger and judgment."
"Why doesn't God take me -- I'm of no use to anyone in this condition?"
"I am afraid of being left alone at the end of my life -- I'm afraid of being alone now!"
"I don't want to be a burden to my children or anyone else. I hate to ask anyone for help."
"My best years are over -- I don't know why they call these the 'golden years.'"
"I find it hard to believe in an afterlife. If there is one, do I exist as me or do I merge into some general consciousness?"
"I have made too many mistakes in my life, and it's too late to fix them."
"Why do I have to put up with this pain for so long? Why can't I end my life when I want to?"
"No one values what I say at this age."
"It's all a downhill journey for me now."
Once I had created the list, I read all four Gospels -- the "Good News" -- taking to my reading the above fears. The driving question was, "Does the Gospel speak to these fears? Is there really any good news in the Good News for older adults -- or are they correct in believing that the Hebrew Scripture (Old Testament) addresses their issues more profoundly?"
What I found was heartening, but I had to search for it -- just as one has to search for the pearl of great price, the hidden treasure. Just as there is no cheap grace, there is no easy gift in the Gospel -- it has to be sought. Jesus' teachings and the years of development of thought and practice based on these teachings have something very positive to say to those who are experiencing the negative side of the aging process. But, as it does when applied in other contexts, for other stages of life, the message of Christ for the aging runs counter to the culture's common beliefs -- and often to our own preferences! Our society asserts that aging is primarily a process of decline. Christianity offers something very different, a vision of aging "in the realm of God."
The following are only some of the responses the Gospel offers to those suffering from the fears of aging. These responses are truly good news and represent the gifts of God to the aging person. They are:
- We are beloved to God and can call God our good parent.
- We have a purpose -- a mission -- that is life-long and independent of our external circumstances.
- We will never be left alone by God.
- As spiritual siblings God wants us to be interdependent upon each other for mutual care and assistance.
- All that is, is gift -- and God will continue to provide for us what is needed at the time.
- Death is not the end of life.
- Forgiveness is always offered to us and we are to share it with others.
- Suffering can have ultimate meaning for ourselves and others.
- Powerlessness is powerful.
- Renewal is necessary for life; it is never too late to grow in wisdom and grace. Though the body declines, the spirit can continue to grow.
Let's take each one of these ten gifts -- all assurances of God's constant love and desire to provide us with 'abundant life' forever -- and examine the gift more closely, asking two questions:
- Where is this supported in the Gospel?
- What does it mean in terms of practical application to life?
1. We are beloved to God and can call God our parent.
Scripture: Matthew 6:5-13 - "Your father knows what you need before you ask."
Luke 13:34 - "How often have I longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings…"
Luke 15:11-32 - Parable of Lost Son - "While he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him, and kissed him."
Luke 11:1-13 - Lord's Prayer
Jesus is the best model for this gift. He called God "Abba" which was a very familiar, intimate way to address one's father, similar to our own "daddy" or "papa" and offered us the same relationship with his father that he had.
One of the great fears we have as we age is that we will be abandoned or neglected by those we love. Another fear is that we will outlive all who have loved us during our lifetime, ultimately becoming aged "orphans." The good news of the Gospel is that we are given the opportunity to become "adult children" of God and spiritual siblings of one another. This parent God invites us to enter into an ever-deepening, intimate, reciprocal relationship that combines deep love and a sense of being nurtured, affectionate friendship and partnership in meaningful work.
At any age, we need a good parent. It seems that the older we become, the more we reminisce about our own parents and become homesick for them. So often I visit nursing homes and those persons suffering from a dementing disorder such as Alzheimer's Disease cry out "Mamma" or "Daddy." They often will say, "I want to go home." Staff members often try to "reality orient" or quiet them by assuring them that they are home. What these caregivers do not realize is that the older adult is pining for the home he or she had as a child. The home where they grew up and were nurtured by loving parents. The pining can become very intense.
Often, though, people did not have good parents, or even "good enough" parents. They do not pine for the real parent, but for an ideal parental nurturer. Jesus, through the Gospels, assures the elder that at any age - even extreme old age - we are still beloved children in God's eyes. God is not sitting in harsh judgment, but in loving indulgence, waiting for the adult child to come and snuggle up in God's loving safety. This is the Gift of God the Loving Parent.
2. We have a purpose -- a mission -- that is life-long.
Scripture: Luke 2:34-38 - stories of the spiritual legacy of the wise ones:
- Simeon, whose life was spent waiting for the Messiah, and is now complete;
- Anna, 84-year-old widow who has spent most of her life in the Temple, worshipping, modelling for others dedication to God, and then going on a new mission in very old age - sharing what she has just learned about the Child with friends and strangers.
John 19:26 Jesus entrusts his mother to John
Luke 23:40-43 Jesus cares for the final well-being of the "good thief."
Society portrays late life as a time of rolelessness, a time of marginalization when one no longer has anything useful to offer or important to say to the human community. Retired elders are looked upon as burdens, "greedy geezers" who must be prevented from using up all the resources of the young. The life skills of the old ones are no longer sought in the age of the computer. Some withdraw from life in despair while others try frenetically to remain forever middle-aged and active to the point of frenzy. As a result, those of us who work with frail elders are often asked why they have to go on living when they cannot contribute to society in the way in which they would like. Our culture tends to value only those of us who can pull our own weight, especially financially. Those who cannot earn money -- children, and the sick and disabled of any age -- have very little value in a society that idolizes productivity. This process of devaluation begins at retirement, when, because they are not making money, they are seen as a drain on society. To counteract the devaluation process many throw themselves into a hectic life of volunteer activities that rivals the work life they once had.
Older adults are especially prone to self-devaluation when they become frail and unable to contribute to society as they once could. They often ask, "Why doesn't God take me?" In fact, in secular society this may be a reasonable question to ask. However, the Gospel states otherwise. Jesus tells Peter that when he can no longer take care of himself and must be led around by others and dressed by others, that he will be glorifying God! This may be one of the most hopeful gifts the Gospel has to offer the frail elder -- that somehow, even though one may be flat on one's back, lying in bed in a b-grade nursing home, one may, because of one's frailty, be a source of God's glorification.
How can this be? Here's an example. Rita was an 86-year-old woman without any living family who was confined to bed in a nursing home. Despite her disability she was one of the happiest persons I had ever met. Rita had the advantage of being able to have a single room, but not because she wanted more privacy than others. It was because she wanted to have a welcoming place for visitors. Rita kept a comfortable old rocking chair in her room that was visible from the door, which she kept open most of the time. She had a large sign on her door that said "Welcome - Come on in and Take a Load Off Your Feet!" And that is just what people did -- friends, staff, family of residents, even other residents could be seen taking a quick rest, chatting away as they rocked. The secret was that they talked and rested while Rita listened. And listened. Rita never spoke of herself; she just made her ears and love available for the comfort of all who came to "take a load off." When they left her room, they all felt lighter, calmer, and much loved.
When I asked Rita why she always seemed so happy and how she put up with being confined to bed most of the time, she said it gave her the opportunity to be God's ears for whoever came in to rock and rest. She truly believed that she was serving God more completely in this way than she ever did when she was up and busy about many things. This is the Gift of Lifelong Mission.
3. We will never be left alone.
Scripture: All of the post-resurrection appearances that reinforce Jesus' statement "Lo, I am with you always."
John 14:23 - "We will come and make our home with you."
One of the great fears of aging is that of being abandoned, of being left alone, without the company of our family and friends. Actually, this may happen, especially if friends and family die long before we do. Many people see no reason for living when their emotional support system is no longer there, through death, relocation, or intent.
This happens to be one of my greatest fears as I age. I am an only child with no children or other relatives. The closest person in my life is my husband, Ron. There are times when I wake up in a cold sweat in the middle of the night, realizing that if Ron dies before I do there is not even a single soul who is obligated to bury me!
I try not to dwell on this thought but one day I was sharing my fear of being left alone, without family, with one of Ron's cousins, whom I love dearly. After I stopped speaking she said, "Oh, Jane, that is not true!" I expected her to continue on, saying that she or her large family would see to it that I am not left alone. But she didn't. What she said was far more wonderful. Her response was, "Jane, you are not alone -- the whole Body of Christ is your family!" I had never thought of it in those terms. I do belong to a faith community I care about greatly; these people are my family in the deepest way. And, while I may have to make my own funeral home arrangements, the presence of the "Body of Christ" at my funeral will help me on my way!
In addition to the presence of the human Body of Christ, some denominations have the advantage of celebrating the Lord's Supper (communion). Often the Bread is taken to people in the congregation who are confined to their homes. This sacramental Presence of God is another way in which we will never be left alone.
Finally, Jesus has promised us that if we keep his command to love one another, he and the Father, in the Spirit, will make our heart their dwelling place, their home. If, in times of loneliness, we could really get in touch with that reality, we will know and feel that we are not alone. This is the Gift of God's Abiding Presence.
4. As spiritual siblings we are interdependent upon each other for mutual care and assistance.
Scripture: Luke 10:29-37 - Parable of the Good Samaritan
John 13:14 - Jesus washed the feed of his disciples and told them, "Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you should wash one another's feet."
John 15:1-17 - "I am the vine; you are the branches. Love each other as I have loved you…"
Our society rewards individualism and independence, but this attitude does not reflect reality at any stage of the lifespan. The people who comprise the current cohort of older adults were taught to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. For them, independence is of primary value. They absolutely hate having to depend on others for anything -- from a ride to church to help with housecleaning.
As a clinical gerontologist, I frequently see this desire for independence taken to an extreme. I have had encounters with many people who can no longer cook, but who refuse to accept Meals-on-Wheels or any help from family or friend to prepare food that can be warmed up or eaten right out of the refrigerator. As a result they become malnourished and risk falling prey to countless illnesses. (Which will make them even MORE dependent). Many people cease attending church on Sunday when they can no longer drive and refuse the offer of a ride, saying "I'll do it on my own or not at all." And then there are those who really need to be in an assisted living situation who risk death to be on their own. The underlying fear is always, "I don't want to be a burden to anyone."
Most of us do not want to ask for help because this puts us in a powerless position. We would rather be the givers, the helpers. The statement I hear most frequently is "I don't want to be a burden to my children!" To this I reply, "Have your children ever been a burden to you? We are all meant to be burdens to each other -- we are meant to depend on each other. Independence is a myth; no one is entirely independent. Who grew the food in the store for you to buy! Aren't you dependent on your local supermarket? Dry cleaner? Auto mechanic? Physician? Medication? etc." The message of the Gospel is that we must replace the attitude of rugged individualism with a willingness to be interdependent. We must learn not only to be helpful and to serve, but also to be served, to be helped. Even the most frail and those with dementia have gifts to give -- even if the gift is the gracious and loving acceptance of assistance. We have the opportunity to exchange gifts and skills that will enable everyone in the community of Christ (that is, ALL people) to flourish. We should keep in mind that even Jesus had to have someone to help him carry his own cross! This is the Gift of Mutual Care.
5. All that is, is gift -- and God will continue to provide for us.
Scripture: Luke 12:22-34 - "Do not worry about your life…"
Matthew 6:25-34 - "Seek first his kingdom…"
Matthew 6:5-13 - Lord's Prayer
Matthew 7:7-12 - "Ask and it will be given to you…"
Most of the time we see life and the good things in it as something to which we are entitled, which we can and must provide or achieve for ourselves. When we face the natural losses that accompany the aging process, we often become depressed or angry, bitter, jealous, and envious of others. We refuse to let go, even when this is in our best interest. Grief consumes us and we tend to bemoan the loss of the gifts of the past. We do not trust that new, more appropriate gifts will be provided. We cling to things that made us happy at an earlier time in our lives, for which we no longer have use. We are afraid to let them go. Soon, our homes and closets become full of all kinds of outdated things we just can't quite give away. We do not trust that we will continue to have our needs met!
An extreme example of this is the "hoarder." There is much research interest in this phenomenon lately, because there are increasing instances of older people who have died in fires that have started in dangerously cluttered houses. The houses are so packed with old newspapers, clothes, etc. that they go up in flames like dried tinder. Firemen cannot rescue them because the pathways to doors and windows are blocked.
What makes a person go to such an extreme? There are probably many psychological reasons for this kind of behavior, but on a spiritual level, it represents a lack of trust in God's ongoing gifts.
As we go through a number of developmental stages in our life journey, we have needs that are pertinent to that stage only. For example, when we are babies, we have need for someone to be constantly nearby, to feed and change us and to protect and nurture us. However, when we are in our early adulthood, it would be stifling to our development to continue to have someone hovering over us to feed, clothe, and protect us, not letting us out of their sight for more than a few minutes at a time. Likewise, when we are ten years old the gift of a car would be a deadly weapon in our hands; at twenty five it is a necessary gift. At ninety-five and suffering from retinitis pigmentosa it is once again a deadly weapon -- we need different gifts at different times. Yet, how often do we cling to outdated, unusable or even dangerous gifts? The older adults' own 4-bedroom, two story home can be in the category of an outdated gift when assisted living is more appropriate to abundant living.
Joseph represents a man who has shown great confidence in God's gifts, but it did not come without a struggle. When he was 78 he was told that his eyesight was too poor to enable him to drive safely. His physician asked him to stop driving. He resisted at first, but as he began to realize that he might be responsible for hurting or killing someone if he were to continue, he sadly gave up his keys. This was especially difficult, as he lived alone and did not have a spouse to take over the tasks that could be accomplished with a car. He was also extremely independent and did not want to bother anyone. After many offers from his fellow church members, many of whom he did not know very well, to give him rides, he assented. The other option was a retirement home and he didn't feel ready for that. He shared with me that after 6 months of receiving rides, he realized that he had made more friends during those months than he had during the previous years since his retirement. He actually said that he valued these new friends more than his ability to drive and saw the new situation as a blessing.
The good news is that we have a Creator/God who is an intimate father (or mother) figure, who knows all our needs, numbers all the hairs on our heads, and will give us what we currently need, even as we are stripped of what we needed in the past. This is the Gift of God's Continual Giving.
6. Death is not the end of life.
Scripture: John 20-21 - Resurrection of Jesus and appearances after the resurrection
Matthew 16:25 - "Anyone who wants to save his life will lose it; anyone who loses his life will find it."
Our society fears death, yet is obsessed by it. We cannot tolerate the mystery of not knowing what happens after death and are fascinated with stories of "near death" experiences and encounters with angels. Many of us do not find comforting the thought of the annihilation of personal consciousness or even complete annihilation. Fear of death leads to fear of living fully, as one becomes overprotective of oneself. Also, as a direct result of this fear of death, large amounts of money is often spent in the last month of a terminally ill person's life, trying to stave off the end. Death is seen as a failure by many healthcare professionals.
The good news of the Gospel is that we are offered the comforting teaching of personal life after death -- to the point of the resurrection of the body (though how this "works" is not defined.) This is the Gift of Everlasting Life.
7. Forgiveness is offered to us and is to be shared with others.
Scripture: Matthew 6:5-13 - Lord's Prayer
John 21:15 - Jesus' continued love of and trust in Peter
At the end of the lifespan many people feel that they have not lived as God would have wanted them to and have unresolved guilt in relationship to God. Often I hear older adults say they are afraid to die because of something they did in the past that they believe was unpardonable -- or that they will not forgive themselves for. I once tried to counsel a 76-year-old woman who needed surgery for breast cancer, but was refusing to have even a lumpectomy. She finally told me that she had been sexually abused by her older sister's husband from the time she was 5 years old until she was 12. She believed that God would not forgive her because she had not told her mother of the abuse. She was also obsessed with hatred for herself and for the brother-in-law who had abused her. As a result she believed that God was punishing her for her sin by "giving" her cancer. She refused treatment because she believed it was the will of God for her to suffer for her childhood sin. Her comment was "Well, if I go to hell, at least I have the satisfaction that my brother-in-law will, too."
It took a great deal of effort on the part of the hospital chaplain to convince this poor woman that she had not sinned by not telling her mother and that even if she had, God would forgive her. But this was not enough, because she was still obsessed with hatred for the perpetrator. Only when she decided to offer him forgiveness (not acceptance of his behavior) did she fully begin to believe that she had a right to claim her gift of life. She accepted the surgery and is living well, six years later -- happier than she has been since she was six years old! This is the Gift of God's Forgiveness of Us and Our Sharing the Gift with Others.
8. Suffering can have ultimate meaning for ourselves and others.
Scripture: Mark 14 and 15:1-40 - Passion of Jesus
Our society sees no value in suffering of any kind. Avoidance of suffering can lead us to a desire to flee from the potential for suffering and to claim the absence of suffering as a legal right. This can create a climate of fear and despair, leading to a desire for euthanasia -- the flight from our final sufferings. And not only do we not want to suffer, we do not want to suffer from watching the sufferings of others.
In the Gospel story of the passion of Jesus we find that he models an ideal way of dealing with our own suffering, whatever that may be. Let us examine his experience and how he handles it.
First of all, Jesus asks his best friends to be with him in the Garden of Gethsemane - he does not want to go through this alone. He doesn't expect them to do anything, just to be with him.
Jesus asks his father whether the suffering he is going to experience is really necessary and asks that it be taken away.
When he realizes the suffering is unavoidable, he willingly enters into it.
He ascribes meaning to it.
He experiences abandonment by friends and his own father, but he refuses to be disconnected from them.
He maintains hope that there is something beyond the suffering.
These are steps we can all take when dealing with our pain. This is the Gift of Meaningful Suffering.
9. Powerlessness is powerful.
Scripture: John 21:18-19 - "I tell you the truth, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go." Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death through which Peter would glorify God. (This was originally a proverb about aging.
Matthew 5:3-11 - the Beatitudes
Our society marginalizes those who are not financially "productive" but the gift of the Gospel is that in the mind of Christ those who are poor materially and in mind, body, and spirit are blessed in a different way -- have other kinds of gifts to give. In the process of kenosis, katabolism, diminishment, emptying out, becoming poor, marginalized; i.e., old and frail and dependent on others, we are assured that we can somehow continue to glorify God. We can continue to contribute to the well being of the lives of others even when we are totally dependent on them for all of our needs. We may never be aware of what we give to others as a result of our powerlessness, as in the situation of severe memory loss.
10. Renewal is necessary for life; it is never too late to grow in wisdom and grace.
Scripture: Luke 2:52
John 3:1-8 "How can a man be born when he is old?
Why do some people shrivel up and withdraw from life as they age, while others seem to come into the fullness of being in later life? Perhaps they lose the hope that they can change, that life can actually get better for them in some way. The gift of the Gospel for older adults is that Jesus emphasizes the need and opportunity for rebirth, for renewal, even when one is old, and offers people encouragement to see things differently, to open their eyes to the availability of a deeper, more abundant experience of life.
Even in the midst of the diminishment of age, opportunities exist for growth and development in areas of physical well-being (stewardship of the body) as well as intellectual, personal, moral (interpersonal and social), and faith/spiritual realms. The predominant bio-psycho-social-spiritual message is "use it or lose it." For those who like to have something to look forward to and to reach for, this is an exciting message, but it does require a willingness to change, to die a little bit to be "born again," which will always involve personal effort and the willingness to let go of previously treasured ways of being. This is the Gift of Renewal.
The above are just some of the gifts of the Gospel for older adults. Ther are more. Let's look for them and share them with those people who yearn for a more abundant old age!
Dr. Jane Marie Thibault is Clinical Gerontoligist and Assistant Professor of Family and Community Medicine at the School of Medicine at the University of Louisville in Kentucky. She is the author of A Deepening Love Afair: The Gift of God in Later Life.
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Copyright © 2002, Wayne E. Oates Institute. All rights reserved.