Sunday, January 1, 2012

Aging and Believing

Being the ex-preacher it's difficult for me to go to worship, encounter a nice juicy Sunday morning text and not think about how I'd treat the text homeletically.

This morning we had the texts of Simeon and Anna and their encounter with baby Jesus in the temple. What a chance to talk to a group of aging baby boomers about what happens to faith as we age. I'll bet there's even some empirical data about the effects of age on belief structures, trust, and relationships. I certainly got to thinking about those things as I read through the texts for the morning.

Here are two elderly people who are not entirely conventional in their belief systems to begin with. One is waiting for the “consolation of Israel.” The other has been in the Temple praying and fasting and who knows what else since she was a young widow. Anna, it seems, may have been at the temple day and night for sixty, seventy years. These are not normally religious people who come for the holy days and the rest of the time slip in an occasional prayer or a thought about god and gods and eternal life and messiahs and what might be about to happen. These are seriously religious people – devout is the word Luke uses.

What happens to our faith as we age?

Over the years I've seen a variety of interactions between faith and aging, though I'd reduce them to two extremes (of course there's lots of middle ground too).

Hazel became adventurous as she aged – until she reached the point at which she'd lost most of her sight, all of her hearing and much of her sense of self. But up to then she was willing to trust that her life was in the hands of the divine. She came to accept the gay men around her, the church as a center for performing arts. She walked to church, no matter the weather, trusting that her way would be kept safe – or at least that the objective was worth the effort.

Ruth was the opposite. She'd lost a husband to a particularly nasty kind of cancer, and the cancer was probably a result of his work in NASA. The government denied that there was any possible connection between the radiation to which he'd been exposed and the cancer he developed. That double betrayal led Ruth, as she aged, to become more enamored of the pious platitudes. Anger will do that if you can't or won't face it.

The two extremes – new trust in new truthes and clinging to old pieties – both are possible reactions to the world as we age. We boomers (neither Hazel nor Ruth were baby boomers) have the possibility of getting this final action right and learning to trust that there is something yet to come, something yet to be revealed that may be the consolation of Israel – or the world – or we can begrudge the future for not being like the past.

Which, I wonder, will be do? Boomers are being blamed for much that's happened to the world. Could we maybe get this one right? I hope so.

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