I was talking to a friend of mine on Skype other day, about being “older” and its challenges. His name is Rev. Brian McCaffrey and he is very experienced in this topic, being the Chairman at the Northeast Forum on Spirituality & Aging for the Upstate New York Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America Older Adult Ministry. [Click here to read more about this ministry to older people.] What caught my attention was a statement he made, that we “learn to live with paradox” the older we get. Our maturation process depends on holding life and death together in our minds as we enter the “dying process.” Our opportunity is to “glorify God” by learning to do this process jointly with God.
The dying process
As I get older ideas about death and dying seem more important to me. I have been “doing life” for many years and haven’t really focused on death. Now, it looms just over the horizon, perhaps only a few years away. As I said to Brian on our Skype call, I’m not afraid of what comes after death, just the “process of dying.” He agreed that going to an aged care facility seems like something to be avoided — but then said that he has come to see that many of these seemingly helpless and dependent people are “glorifying God.” Jesus glorified his Father in the death he was to endure on the Cross: “I glorified you on earth by finishing the work you gave me to do.” [John 17:4] It seems clear to me that how we end our work here on earth is important to God, even ‘glorifying’ the Father. What can this mean?
The process of dying certainly involves letting go. First we ‘retire’ and depend on our savings and other sources of income. We let go of certain aspects of our lifestyle. Then we begin to lose our health and depend on others to help us find ways to manage our wellness. Finally, we become so frail that we depend on others to do many things for us. At the end, this even includes bathing us, feeding us, and changing our ‘nappies’ as we become almost infantile. We may or may not keep our mental acuity. So, we must ‘let go’ of many things in life whether we want to or not. But just letting go because we have no other choice does not ‘glorify God.’ Choosing to let go in a particular way is what Jesus means by glorifying God. This is where the paradox of aging comes in.
The paradox of aging
What is the paradox of aging? For me it is the inner conflict between ‘fighting’ and ‘surrender.’ You sometimes hear people say, “She fought hard to stay alive” about a dying person. The will to live is essential; otherwise people just fade away before their time. The desire to continue to live is clearly a good thing. But then we discover that, no matter how hard we strive to live, we eventually come to the point where we (and medicine) can do no more. We must ‘surrender’ and die. In my imagination I can see myself on my death bed doing this, right at the very end. But that isn’t what Jesus did. He entering the process of dying much earlier in his life — he knew his life was inextricably tied to the Cross — and ‘surrendered’ to God’s will. In fact, Jesus’ entire life was one of surrender to God’s will, not ‘fighting for life’ or his own goals. The paradox of aging is we must devote energy to living and we must also learn how to negotiate the process of dying.
So, how do we resolve this paradox? We come to accept that we cannot make the transition from earthly life to eternal life by ourselves — we are completely dependent on God. That is certainly difficult for most of us to swallow. Being independent, achieving our goals, realizing our dreams is what western culture celebrates. Yet, that is not a mature way to view life. Learning to ‘surrender’ and be carried by God — because we cannot carry ourselves — that is a mature view of Christian life. My mother was 96 when she passed away — and she is my personal model of a mature approach to the process of dying and glorifying God. She lived at home, cared for by my sister until the last 3 months of her life. She didn’t want to go to a nursing home but she knew my sister couldn’t care for her anymore so she bravely accepted the transition. I hope I can be as mature as she was, at the end.
Ascending the mountain
Another helpful way to think about the paradox is to use metaphors for the process of dying. We need metaphors to understand things we have never experienced before. They help us imagine new possibilities. Pope Benedict imagined the process of dying this way, in his book Jesus of Nazareth: “The ascent toward ‘loving to the end’ (cf John 13:1) is the real mountain of God.” If you read the beginning of Chapter 13 of John’s Gospel, you might initially be surprised, but then when you think about this chapter, Jesus was showing us the way to both live and die. It was the Last Supper and Jesus knew he would die soon. He (the Master and God) washed the feet of his friends. The metaphor of ascent to God is turned on its head. Ascending the mountain isn’t about some heroic demonstration of courage in the face of death, or stoicism in the face of fear and suffering. Jesus unmistakeably demonstrates that it is about serving others.
How do we serve others in the process of dying? Each person discovers their unique situation and tasks as they approach death but Jesus’ message is clear: Don’t look inside yourself for strength in those moments or days. Serve others and trust in the Father for strength. “Let go and let God” as the saying goes. We can’t serve others or reach the top using our own strength. The process of dying is not a letting go of life; we know we are approaching eternal life as we ascend God’s mountain. The process of dying is a letting go of self, trusting that God holds us in His hands. How do we know we have let go of ourselves? When we focus on others — family, friends, nurses, doctors, other people in the same circumstances. “Loving to the end” is what the process of dying is all about.