(Aging, Illness, Dying, and Fear of the Lord)
by Michael Herzog
Isaiah 43: 1-2,5a
But now thus says the Lord,
he who created you, O Jacob,
he who formed you, O Israel:
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name, you are mine.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
and the flame shall not consume you.
Do not fear, for I am with you;
I will bring your offspring from the east,
and from the west I will gather you;
WORDS TO MEDITATE UPON
Death is no more than passing from one room into another. But there’s a difference for me, you know. Because in that other room I shall be able to see.
“I’ve had a lot of troubling worries in my life, most of which never happened.”
FEAR AND FAITH
We’re at the end of this series based on — pretty much — the Adam Hamilton book, “Unafraid.” He was aware that a great many of his parishioners at the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Kansas City were living in fear — and it was having an effect on their lives; a damaging effect. He wanted to help and the result was this book that talks about the great many things that strike fear into our hearts and how we might — as persons of faith — deal with them. It is an impressive list of fears from crime and terrorism to failure and loneliness to fear of missing out and financial security . . . ending with my section on aging, illness, and dying — oh, yes, and fear of the Lord.
So how did I wind up with this section to try to preach on? One word: Seniority. It seemed appropriate to have a card-carrying truly elderly person talk about these end-of-life issues. I am acquainted with these things.
I own the title, elderly man. It took me ten years to get used to writing — and spelling — septuagenarian. And now I have a new one to learn. My clock ticks over EIGHTY next week. Believe me, I’m as surprised as you are — but, there you are, I am undeniably eighty . . . elderly.
I think to be true to the Adam Hamilton “Unafraid” book, I should try at least to follow his chapter headings. His first chapter in this Aging and Dying section is headed:
I DON’T WANT TO GROW OLD!
Age is relative, of course, it’s a perspective thing. In our extreme youth we said not to trust anyone over thirty — and then we were . . . thirty. I see photos of myself when I first joined this church in 1977. I was 38 years old . . . slim, black bearded, dark hair — YES, hair — and it was shoulder-length. Then I was thrust into a premature and underfunded retirement at age 53. I’m too young to be retired! No, I wasn’t. No one wanted to employ me, so I was retired . . . young. Retired . . . verb, not an adjective.
There are newspaper stories from time to time that say: Elderly man victim of hit and run. John Smith, age 64 of Napa . . . 64? . . . elderly? Clearly that was written by the 20-year-old junior reporter. Relative. The gym I attend at Napa College, Adaptive Physical Education, has many too many mirrors. Wherever I look there is this lumpy old man looking back at me. A me I hardly recognize — I don’t want to recognize. We dread the first signs — physical signs — of aging — the gray hair — wrinkles. Thick in the middle and thin on top. Loss of physical attractiveness. I didn’t have much in the way of “looks” to lose, so that hasn’t been especially traumatic. But, so what? Where is the fear here? I don’t know who that old person is. I’m afraid of losing my . . . self. This change. I don’t know what it will be like to be old. Maybe I won’t like it. The unknown. Fear of the unknown.
The antidote in the words of Jesus: “I am with you always . . . even unto the end of the age.”
BTW: The older I get, the less afraid I am of pretty much everything. More freedom. Care less about what other people think. I mean, really — what can they do to me, anyway?
And then there’s ANXIETY, WORRY, and PHYSICAL ILLNESS.
I hear tell that newer cars talk to their driver — you know, calling attention to a soft tire or even warning about erratic driving. The car I drive is 88 years old . . . in car years. You know, like dog years. There is a formula to calculate that number if you want to. My old car does not talk to me. Mary and I had a VW bus once upon a time that we joked had a signal on the dashboard that lit up when it was time to make a car payment — but, actually, we made up that story. The point here is that our bodies are like the new car warning systems — we get a pain or a twinge or a . . . feeling, that something’s wrong. We check it out. The medical professional says, well, yes, of course, you have a . . . whatever . . . and we can fix that. BUT, sometimes our danger-sensing systems send us a false alarm. Anxiety. Our fight or flight response has us tensed up, pulse pounding. My heart is pounding. Is there something wrong with my heart? Is it a brain thing? — or . . . what? We don’t know, except that there’s something not right.
Now, I’m old but I’m not stupid. I know there are anxiety disorders and panic attacks and issues that I know I don’t know enough about to be giving advice. BUT, we can allow needless worry to suck up our energy and hijack our peace of mind.
I like the Mark Twain quote that I used in words to meditate upon: “I’ve had a lot of troubling worries in my life, most of which never happened.”
Jesus said, “Who among you by worrying can add a single moment to your life? Stop worrying about tomorrow because tomorrow will worry about itself.”
There are, of course, many frightening diseases and disorders out there. Cancer is a frightening diagnosis. Men have a one in four chance of dying of cancer according to the American Cancer Society. That doesn’t sound so good. Actually instead of 25% it’s closer to 22% and if we look again at a group of non-smoking men, the number drops to 15%. In other words there’s an 85% chance of NOT dying from cancer. If the weather forecast calls for an 85% chance of a sunny day, you don’t cancel your picnic plans.
Keep your perspective. Accentuate the positive. Practice breath prayers. Learn meditation. A silent meditation group meets right here — literally RIGHT HERE — every Monday at 5:30 PM.
I have to say this — the “D” word. Dementia. Cognitive Impairment. Alzheimer’s. The question — the fear — am I losing my marbles? It is not unusual for us, as we age, to develop some holes in our memory — and usually at the most inconvenient time and place. I can remember the name of my second grade teacher and who sponsored Captain Midnight on the radio in the 1940s but I can stand here to deliver a sermon and have my brain shut down right in the middle of things, and I can’t remember what I’m supposed to do next. For what it’s worth, the odds are in our favor for NOT ever having Alzheimer’s Disease. We may have our embarrassing little lapses and when we do, I say smile and make light of it. But, what do we do? We want to do something. Face our fear with faith, examine our assumptions, counter-attack anxiety with action. Make a donation to Alzheimer’s research — progress is being made — and move on. Choose not to worry about it. We can do that.
I’m not quite sure where to place this idea. It doesn’t fit with Adam Hamilton’s chapter headings, but . . . it’s an important part of these last things — a fear of falling short — of doing harm. The popular Kenny Rogers song “The Gambler” said:
You’ve got to know when to hold ’em
Know when to fold ’em
Know when to walk away
A dozen or so years ago — I was quite involved in work beyond the local church — Cal/Nevada Conference Board of Ordained Ministry, Committee on Clergy Investigation, Annual Conference Session Worship Task Force . . . things like that. With the new quadrennium in 2008 I saw some surgeries coming up that would limit my ability to drive to Sacramento and actively participate in the Board of Ordained Ministry, so I withdrew from BoOM and let someone with more energy have a crack at what I’d been doing for quite a few years. You’ve got to know when to fold ‘em.
And, I like to think that I’ll know when to hand over my car keys. I like to think that I would not endanger another person — especially those I love — rather than give up my four-wheeled independence. We are blessed with free will — and the responsibilities that go with it.
And then there’s I’M NOT READY TO DIE.
What’s it all about, Alfie? This stage of life? This death thing. I think of it as making friends with my mortality. Certainly I am old enough to die. Half of my high school graduating class is dead. My cohort of cousins is less than half of what it was when I was a kid. I have lost a son to death and Mary’s lost a sibling. Death is very real — it will not be ignored. So, make friends? How do you do that? Get acquainted. Hello darkness, my old friend, I’ve come to talk with you again. Recognize death as where we’re headed. Hello there, death. No, no — that’s OK — there’s no hurry. Get acquainted. Make friends. As a writing exercise, I wrote my own obituary. It was a little too long to be able to afford putting it in the paper, but an interesting exercise all the same.
Mary and I were going to hold out to be whisked off together in the rapture, but we’re probably not part of the 144,000 elect anyway.
I don’t suggest assuming a death-obsessed Woody Allen sort of approach, but just a little realism. The Social Security actuarial tables are fun to look over. Having made it to eighty, I can expect to live to eighty-eight. At eighty-eight I can expect to make nine-two. The table runs out at 120. We don’t know. None of us knows when we get up in the morning if we’ll live till supper time. That’s just the way it goes.
So . . . what’s next? I’m thinking about that for my tombstone — WHAT’S NEXT? — if there’s a place for last words on the nameplate.
I have come to think of my relationship with God as eternal. The Hebrew Scripture writers saw it this way, from Jeremiah: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; . . .” I feel that God and I have been connected since before I was born — connected on Earth — and will be after death as well. But . . . but . . . how does that work? I have no idea. It is a mystery. I don’t know — but not knowing doesn’t make it not real.
When you divide one by zero the answer is infinity — an inexpressible concept. It’s not a number, it’s an idea. Infinity. The place where parallel lines intersect. Where is that? What is that? I don’t understand. I don’t understand love either. But I see evidence of it. God, we are told, is love. Is love then, God? These are the things that keep some people awake at night. I find they put me to sleep, along with visits from my dead son David. Mystery. Mystery is what we have when we reach the limits of our human understanding. Not a bad thing. Just a thing. But, if mystery is uncomfortable, God gives us a coping device . . . it’s called trust.
At the risk of sounding more arrogant than usual, I believe that God and I have an understanding. God knows me. God knows what makes me tick. And wonderfully — God loves me. And I — dimly — am beginning to know God. God chooses to reveal more and more to me in a continuing revelation. I find great comfort in that — knowledge. It is enough. It is everything.
And in closing . . . the most welcome words the congregation ever hears . . . IN CLOSING . . . I want to continue to honor Adam Hamilton’s chapter headings . . .
FEAR OF THE LORD.
Fear is a great motivator — used and abused by persons in power as long as there have been persons and power, I suspect. I learned that a more accurate understanding of that phrase “Fear of the Lord” was knowledge of the Lord.
I’ll let someone else have the last word on that:
According to Pope Francis, “The fear of the Lord, the gift of the Holy Spirit, doesn’t mean being afraid of God, since we know that God always loves and forgives us,…It is no servile fear, but rather a joyful awareness of God’s grandeur and a grateful realization that only in him (God) do our hearts find true peace.”
To which I can only add,