What can those in the second half of their lives tell the rest of the Church about the kind of faith that endures? I’d like to suggest that those at midlife and beyond have something important to teach all of us about “marathon faith”:
And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. (Hebrews 12:1-2)
While many of us may know a wise older person who serves as a titled leader or ad hoc spiritual mentor in a congregation, I am thinking of those people who aren’t in the spotlight of leadership at their local church – those who have enough life experience to be able to share their story in order to show all of us us what it looks like to have a faith that endures.
A couple of researchers from Emory University discovered in a surprising key to a child’s resilience – knowing his or her family’s history: “They found that the more a child knew about their family the higher their self-esteem and their ability to withstand stress, to function normally. It turned out to be the ‘best single predictor of children’s emotional health and happiness.’”
As an example, I grew up knowing the example of my immigrant grandmother. She arrived in the U.S. near the turn of the last century as a result of the pogroms in Russia, and worked hard to raise enough money to help bring other family members over. She and one of her sisters married junk dealer brothers and, along with a group of other family members, the transplanted tribe settled in central Illinois. She raised her only child and kept busy for the next three decades as a housewife. After her husband died, she had a breakdown that required hospitalization. That crisis was a turning point in her sixty-something life. She’d never learned to drive, but learned to navigate Peoria via bus and cab after my grandfather’s passing. She got herself a job selling clothing in her heavily-accented English, and became a sales star at the store. She adapted. She survived.
Her ability to adapt to new challenges at different stages of life helped me understand that transition wasn’t ever easy, but it was necessary. Courage in my family wasn’t about whitewater rafting or climbing mountains. It was learning to take the bus around Peoria, and trying to convince strangers to buy that pink floral number to wear to their second cousin’s wedding. Leah Cohen Marks did it. Her story showed me that I could adapt and survive, too.
I am struck that talk of resilience and endurance are often missing from the way we in the Church talk about discipleship. Some in talk about shaping followers of Jesus in terms of information transfer (“Learn this stuff about Jesus”). Others speak in terms of shaping habits and behaviors (“Add these practices to re-form your habits so you will act more like Jesus”). Both of those are necessary components of faithfully following Jesus. Though the virtue of endurance is implied in both of those emphases, I believe it takes stories from older believers to highlight what it really looks like for younger believers.
Writers learn early that a key to good story telling is to show, not tell. In other words, describing something with a boatload of exposition is not nearly as effective as simply demonstrating it: “She was really angry” is not nearly as memorable as “She threw the teacup full of Earl Grey at wall”. This translates a bit into the stories that form us as members of the body of our King. While we have our hero stories, tales of the martyrs and heroes through 20 centuries of Church history, those accounts are second-hand anecdotes for most of us, disconnected from our own experience. Those seasoned saints among us have stories that overlap our own in ways that can help us understand what it means to run this race – my particular course, here and now – with perseverance. While we may hear in our souls the roar of the crowd of saints across time and space, cheering us onward, we desperately need to hear from those who are a few mile markers ahead of us on our specific leg of the journey.
I will always remember the unpolished wisdom a rough-edged older woman from our church at the time gave me the day after our troubled daughter moved out of our home. I was an emotional wreck, and none of my age peers had any insight to offer me. This older friend, who’d been through her own four kids very messy early adulthoods (addictions, jail time, divorces, unemployment and bankruptcy, to name a few things on her long, hard list) said, “You’ve done your best. Trust God is there in this with her and with you. Remember, everyone has their turn in the barrel.” By that, she meant that none of us escapes the hardships of life, or the consequences of our choices. She’d reconciled before God her parenting mistakes, and worked through her regrets. What was left in the wake of a whole lot of chaos was a simple, truthful faith. And it was enough.
She would never be the one at church leading a Bible study, or preaching a sermon, or serving as the model Spiritual Mother Mentor of the congregation’s younger women. I’d seen that my friend had lived her simple trust that God was there in the messes of her kids’ lives in an imperfect way. Her perseverance didn’t tell me it was possible to endure what we were facing. It showed me it was possible, up close, as a guide to my own marathon. I knew her story because she’d lived part of it before me. I knew it was true and her faith was real. And her story became a part of my own spiritual story, similar to the way in which my grandmother’s late-in-life bus riding and dress selling was a part of my family’s emotional legacy. Her story showed me what endurance could look like here and now, in my own context.
While church leaders dismissed my friend as unpolished and uneducated, I realized her experience was a part of my discipleship journey in ways that information acquisition and discipleship habits alone were not. I saw in her life what my own could look like as I trusted God to be there for my child and for me. Her footsteps, a few paces ahead of the marathon course on which I found myself running, gave me a compass for a journey that did not have a road map.
Have you had an older friend who has shown you through example what matters most out of your faith? How does this example fit with the things you know/your church teaches about what it means to grow in the knowledge of Christ? Church leaders, how might the experience of your older members become integrated into your plans and ideas about discipleship for your community?