Living with Confidence through Aging, Illness and Death

November 4, 2018

Rev. Dr. David Clark

Senior Minister

John 11:32-44  

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 Today we begin a new sermon series Fearless: Living with Confidence. On this day when we honor those who have passed on before us, we acknowledge some of our most basic fears about growing older, illness and death. What resources can faith provide to calm us down and give us confidence as we live into our futures–no matter what they hold? Like David in the 23rd Psalm, we can say, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil, for you are with me.”

We live in a culture where it’s considered taboo to talk about our fears of growing older and illness and death. That is unfortunate because part of what can help us deal with our fears, founded and unfounded is to keep it out of the shadowy world of secrecy and get it out in the light where we can examine it for what it is.

When younger people think about aging a lot of fears come to mind. How much of our economy is based on products and services designed around not looking one’s age? As kids we don’t have any perspective to gauge how old someone is. I remember my 2nd grade teacher, Mrs. Meisenbach, as being ancient–outside of my great grandmother, she was the oldest person I knew. That’s why I was so surprised to read that she retired some 25 years after I concluded 2nd grade. She must have only been about 40. When you’re young age seems like a frightening thing.

You can’t do what you used to do. Things don’t look as good. We try to put off the effects of aging the best we can but it catches up. I recently saw a man who looked to be about my age wearing a t-shirt that said, “I thought getting old would take longer.” Seeing him in that shirt made me think, “O my gosh. It happened to me.”

Someone told me that everyone kind of freezes themselves at about 35 or 40 and that’s how old you kind of think of yourself and go through life as if you are that age instead of what the calendar shows. Ray Smith who works in our nursery, drives around town in his red convertible locked in at 39. Every year, for quite a number of rotations around the sun, he celebrates his 39th birthday and has one of the most youthful and alive spirits of anyone I know.

For anyone afraid of growing older, let’s bring a startling fact out into the light. Survey after survey shows that older people report higher degrees of overall wellbeing and happiness. We start out pretty high, but by our late twenties we start to go down and stay there through our mid-fifties. So, good news for me. I’m just about to hit the peak of my misery before things get better.

It’s true. Overall people get happier in their later years than they ever had been before. Instead of dreading it so much, go into it thinking “we’ll let the good times roll.” I don’t mean to diminish the indignities and the frustrations associated with aging but the good think is that by the time they hit you, you’ve gained the maturity to put them in proper perspective and deal with them appropriately.

Of course we’ve all known people who seem to revel in their misery. They focus on the negative–nothing is ever right, it’s all someone else’s fault, no one is doing enough. It’s all a matter of your attitude. You are the person who is best equipped to keep you from becoming a miserable old person. Choose to be a fantastic, upbeat one instead.

Our faith helps give perspective to do this. We can do like Jesus said and live in the present. Enjoy the birds of the air, the lilies. He said don’t worry about tomorrow. Actually what makes fear so paralyzing is that it imagines an unpleasant future and pulls the feelings associated with that unpleasantness into our present moment and it can be overwhelming. It all happens in an instant. The future is probably not as bad or unpleasant as you imagine and you are making yourself anxious about a story, a scenario you’ve made up entirely in your own mind.

Age doesn’t have to be miserable. Since none of us are getting younger (except for a few hours ago when we rolled the clocks back and we got younger by an hour), it makes sense to look at two other things faith gives us that are important to our quality of life.

As much as we focus on preparing for retirement and 401Ks, even more important than your finances are relationships. Older people report on their happiness and the difference seems to be people who have close personal relationships are happier. So, you should think about investing in relationships every bit as much as you focus on your portfolio–it’s more important and you have a whole room full of wonderful people to make friends with.

The second thing that’s important is to have a sense of purpose. Did you know many of the great people of the Bible, like Abraham and Moses were well past retirement age when they began their great adventures with God? You can ask God every day to help you be clear about your purpose, the ways you can make a difference.

The older we get, the more likely we’ll get some physical malady or illness. Those pharmaceutical commercials are good at peddling fear about them. Except the possible side effects sound worse than what you might have. May cause instant death, but I was only trying to get rid of toenail fungus.

Most people are more afraid of the dying process more than they are dying itself. This is an area where Hospice has been so much help. They talk about facts and aim everything at helping people be more comfortable in the process–devoid of pain and surrounded by a system of support and love. Just amazing stuff.

Sometimes in the illnesses we still have to go through some horrible stuff. The key is not to let that horrible stuff allow you to become horrible yourself. When you hurt, the temptation is to give up, to become negative and bitter and self-focused. This is where the resources we build in faith come into play so that when and if it hits you can remember who you are and not let your disease beat you by turning you into someone you are not. Frankly a model for handling it is sitting in this room with us today. She told me that she knows her disease will lead to her death sooner than she’d like but she’s going to go out and live each day to the fullest and have faith and enjoy everything she can.

Often people who are in the midst or on the other side of their illness become what Henri Nouwen called “wounded healers.” People who have been through it and can help others on their journey. They know how and when to reach out and give encouragement. They think to do it.

I’ve always found the passage about Jesus and Mary at Lazarus’ tomb so profound in helping to think about this. Jesus didn’t meet her request to spare her brother from death–by the time he did come Lazarus had already been in the tomb for 4 days. Illness and death are part of life–faith doesn’t save us from these facts, but prepares us for them.

When Mary confronts Jesus at the tomb he is moved by her grief. That is where everyone’s favorite memory verse comes in. Jesus wept. He knew about resurrection, about new life. He had faith, and yet he wept. Not only for Mary’s grief, but also his own. He models grief and he talks about faith and those who believe they will never die. That somehow this material body is not all that there is. We are more than that and that we need not fear what is on the other side of that door.

He didn’t give a lot of descriptions about what it is but he did compare it to a great banquet, a party. It’s in the glory of the Creator’s grace and mercy–to be at one with God. He told the thief hanging on the cross next to his that later they’d be together in Paradise.

My hospice chaplain friend says many times people who are the most religious are the ones most fearful of death. The issue is that they really believe in a God of endless rules and retribution. They think life is about following rules and they don’t really trust in this grace and mercy and forgiveness thing that Jesus said God was all about.

As a pastor I’ve been around death a lot. More than once I’ve been at the bedside of a dying person who opens her eyes and says, “It’s beautiful” as her last words, and dies very quickly after that. I always wonder what they saw and experienced. It’s beautiful. The scriptures say faith helps to grieve, but not as those who have no hope. Jesus wept. We weep. It’s healthy. But weeping is not all we are left with. There is hope.

Maybe that’s all a bit much for you. One way people of faith think about it is to say, “I don’t know much about the hereafter. But I do believe that something of the spirit of a loved one lives on when they are remembered, when their legacy lives on through another person, when people light candles and stand around tables and realized they were blessed by love.

Today I’m remembering one of the best friends I ever had, Don Cameron. He was a beloved Presbyterian minister who called to tell me about this terminal diagnosis. I was surprised he intended to keep working although he only had a few months to live. He said our society is terrible at handling death. Maybe by going through this with me, they won’t be so afraid of it, and learn how to deal with death in their own lives in a more healthy manner.

Yeah, but why not take off, tick everything off your bucket list? He said there were a few things he’d do but it wasn’t time to live differently than the walk of faith he’d been on for such a long time. Then he said, “There come times when you have to decide. Either you believe this stuff or you don’t.”  He lived fully in his last days and talked about how God showed up for him in the faces of people from church. He was not afraid because he believed in the good news of the gospel—that he was a child of God and whatever is afterward he would be cared for. Believing this stuff helps you get over being afraid.

And though we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, we can walk with confidence and humility knowing that we walk with a God who leads us and loves us forever. Those who believe in this will find it. Amen .