It Is What It Is. Maybe.

It Is What It Is. Maybe.

“It is what it is.” Sometimes the weight of people’s words makes even the air in the room feel heavy. Have you experienced this? I hear variations of this phrase frequently in my work with people in later and/or terminal stages of life. Similar phrases appear in response to the unique challenges that accompany aging and faith. I know the meaning of the above saying is trying to stretch beyond the constricting boundaries of the words themselves. When people are processing situations out of their control, cliché-sounding expressions act as placeholders for more to come. The “more” may not come in that conversation or the next, but it’s there. Recently, I’ve been making a point to pay attention to where these conversations are occurring (or not).

I never heard this topic addressed with any depth in church, and I recently discovered this realization is shared in my congregation. I feel strange saying that, and I had to pause and question myself when it occurred to me. I don’t mean to overlook those who are diligently dealing with this conversation, but I am trying to honestly reflect on my own memory. Why is this incredibly common part of life also a gap in my faith community experiences?

The topic of faith and aging is always present, but maybe I simply overlook the small ways it shows up. Have you ever sat at a table with someone who freely shares a seemingly random story from his or her life? Have you noticed any patterns to what they share? Often, the stories highlight significant moments, even if the importance is not obvious to the listener. The process of telling these small episodic stories is called reminiscing, which is a natural way to find meaning in our changing present by looking into our past. Through retelling and reconsidering, we reorient and create new purpose with which to move forward. Take a second to practice. Do you remember what was happening in your 20s? Who was president? What did a gallon of gas cost? What major events were occurring, and what were the main topics discussed in the public square? What music was on the radio, and what trends were circulating (did your fashion reflect it)? I find that we tend to think in tens when it comes to age and, of course, these answers can dramatically differ depending on which age bracket you ask. I know I am hearing something special when an 80-year-old woman talks about growing up out in the country on the outskirts of Abilene, which is now one of the busiest parts of town (as anyone who has tried to eat dinner at the south side Chick-Fil-A can attest).

These conversations are occurring. My question to myself is whether I am providing the opportunities and resources to have them within the church in theologically significant ways. Within the later stages of life, I see the themes of purpose, loss, change, identity, hope, and dignity. What do you see? How are we equipping and supporting our fellow believers for these unique challenges in a life of discipleship?

The opportunity to engage these questions recently came when several couples approached my friend on different occasions, looking for somewhere to have meaningful conversations about the challenges of adult children and the changing relationships with aging parents. He shoulder-tapped me, and now we co-teach a Bible class. We call it “Aging Gracefully,” and I love the name (his idea) because of the double meaning. We all hope to age with grace and dignity, but the process requires a good deal of grace given and received from all parties involved. Wow. We continually fail to cover all our planned material, because people are eager to share and participate on a level I rarely see. What an incredible experience to hear stories from a group of people, ranging from their 30s to their 80s, in the same room dealing with similar questions from different points in life!

As we wrestle through those questions, the posture we take determines how we engage the conversations to come. Author and counselor Dr. Alan D. Wolfelt developed (or popularized) the companioning concept that I find helpful to the work I do in pastoral care. [1]

Here’s how I would describe Wolfelt’s approach: I am no expert in the topic of aging and faith, but I can be curious about another life to the point of being willing to listen. I don’t have to be burdened with the need to fill every moment with words; I can learn the gift of silence. I don’t have to lead people in this topic, but I can come alongside someone. I don’t need to teach people about what they are experiencing, but I do need to be willing to learn. I don’t have to always analyze with my head; it is okay to listen with the heart. I don’t always need to move people forward; it can be okay to be still for a time. Finally, I don’t need to take away the challenges people are facing; I need to learn to be meaningfully present.

My prayer is that people find an engaging and supporting place within the church when they wrestle with these questions.

[1] Alan D. Wolfelt, Understanding Your Grief: Ten Essential Touchstones for Finding Hope and Healing Your Heart (Fort Collins: Companion Press, 2003), 6.

“Reading the OED” by Ammon Shea

“Reading the OED” by Ammon Shea

Vulture Brain

Vulture Brain