The Shining: Lydia's 50th Birthday

You should have seen Cal’s face! I was leaving his place after a rousing Wednesday night’s discussion when he offhandedly mentioned that he was stiffening up a lot more lately. Instead of a compassionate response, my cranky old man snarled, “It only gets worse!” It was just my way of whining about my comparatively more decrepit state. We smiled acknowledging of our growing awareness of aches and pains and our mutual diminishment, mentally and spiritually.

Over the week, I had opportunities to deepen my words, “It only gets worse.” It is Richard Rohr’s fault. Here’s what he said:

"During the second-half of life, success no longer teaches us anything. It still feels good, but we don't learn from it. Now we learn more from failure."

He doesn’t use my simple, brutal words “only gets worse,” instead he tells us that if we are to grow in the second half of life (beginning at around forty), we have to move away from success or accomplishment-driven perspectives. Rohr is not implying that success is wrong or evil after midlife, certainly not. He is just directing our attention away from establishing ourselves toward giving ourselves away. A “Canadian Rohr sound-alike,” Ron Rolheiser puts it better than I could:

The major task of aging is that of mellowing - grieving, forgiving, letting go, accepting vulnerability, and moving beyond the greed, ambition, competitiveness, and perpetual disappointment of youth.

When we “get it,” our body's and memory's and mind’s suggestions that we are middle age, we are urged to stop trying to prove ourselves. We are no longer desperately trying to establish, even through our service to others, that "I count, I'm worthwhile, I'm talented, I'm good, I'm loveable, notice me, love me." Nor do we have to say, “We are washed up” or “worse than we were before.” That’s just age’s cynical expression.

Generative discipleship

Whether entirely satisfied or not, we have completed the first of three developmental discipleship stages. For better or worst, we have moved through our essential discipleship. We have used our time and energies forming habits, practices and consolidating our beliefs. We are not going to stop refining theses skills but the central task of gathering them is winding down.

Our new challenge is to unselfconsciously give our lives away. In this generative discipleship phase our task is to pass it forward, hand it over, in a sense give it up and refuse to hold on to it. What is the “it” in that sentence? The “it ” is our ego, our sense of self in the best sense. We are still making a contribution but no longer looking to strengthen ourselves.

Sometime out beyond where any of us here are located is another phase - toward which the other stages have always been hinting, the state of Radical discipleship. Here even our active contribution to others is no longer in focus.

Henry Nouwen just before his recent death said:

How do I live the last years of my life so that when I die my death will bless my loved ones just as my life once did? How do I live out my remaining years so that when I die "blood and water" will, metaphorically, flow from my dead body as they once flowed from Jesus' dead body?

To me in my immaturity this sounds more ominous than my cranky, “it only gets worse.” But it isn’t. It is in fact a wonderful culmination of the way of maturing in Christ. Jesus taught this way when he said,

I tell you for certain that a grain of wheat that falls on the ground will never be more than one grain unless it dies. But if it dies, it will produce lots of wheat. If you love your life, you will lose it. If you give it up in this world, you will be given eternal life (John 12:24–25 CEV).
Two types of aging discipleship are hinted at in that verse: Essential discipleship that tells us how to be productive seed and Generative discipleship that instructs us how to let it go.

But I want to give Paul the apostle the last word on this maturing in Christ and I want to direct it to Lydia.

It is God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ that has shone into our hearts to enlighten them with the knowledge of God’s glory, the glory on the face of Christ. Always we carry with us in our body the death of Jesus so that the life of Jesus, too, may be visible in our body. That is why we do not waver; indeed, though this outer human nature of ours may be falling into decay, at the same time our inner human nature is renewed day by day (2 Corinthians 4:6, 10, 16 NJB).
Lydia, I have known you for most of your life. The blonde haired gangly teen asking for a poem on which to build her self esteem. The young married child-bride adjusting to the movement of another person taking up space in her consciousness. The student full of new ideas edging her way into her beliefs, sometimes easily sometimes with a lot of effort. The young adult trying to figure out what covenant with others really means, how to harmonize her own temperamental differences with her friends. I have accompanied you as a writer, seeing how your particular way of observing and making sense of the world could be put to use in a vocation. I have seen this but most of all, I have seen the face Christ shine out in you.

I have also been the beneficiary of that shining. I have enjoyed your writing, admired its uniqueness. Your stories and summaries have given me energy. They have stripped away the abstraction of my understanding, making things pure and simple in the best sense. I have overheard the struggles and the victories of you giving your life to others, especially your unruly, sometimes ungrateful students. You have struggled with the desire to be validated on the outside and have experienced that perpetual discontent we have with our less than perfect works.

Less than perfect is the dominant idea here: Generative, productive but less than perfect. It is your weakness that draws you to communion in Christ - crying Abba Father! In that cry of human limitation lies the request that God fill up what is lacking. Before Jesus died he carried that death of weakness, in our mini-deaths of incompleteness and limitation we carry it too. One recent example may help you understand how failure helps. Your falling out with your sister has left you feeling somewhat bereft, incomplete because reconciliation has not followed honesty and confession. I certainly know what that feels like Lydie. Yet Paul’s text promises that when we die with Christ we shall also be raised with him. There is a redemption; we can bank on a spiritual life when things seem lost, and Christ has promised that good things always come to those who are called and following. The Message Bible encourages us imperfect mid-agers:

All around us we observe a pregnant creation. The difficult times of pain throughout the world are simply birth pangs. But it’s not only around us; it’s within us. The Spirit of God is arousing us within. We’re also feeling the birth pangs.These sterile and barren bodies of ours are yearning for full deliverance. That is why waiting does not diminish us, any more than waiting diminishes a pregnant mother. We are enlarged in the waiting. We, of course, don’t see what is enlarging us. But the longer we wait, the larger we become, and the more joyful our expectancy (Romans 8:22–25 MESSAGE).
From our imperfection Christ brings a New Being! Our middle aging, our aging and our ultimate death point to the New Being in Christ. This newness need not be delayed until we are passed; we experience its future promise now. We witness it in each other’s imperfections, patience, contentment, wisdom, self-extension and love. Hopefully we shall be accompanying one another in this generative shining of Christ’s face in our lives for some time.

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