Following worship, the young pastor sat beside the elderly parishioner holding court on the "welcome" patio. In the open spaces of Texas, the deck affords pleasant views of the tree-lined neighborhood and limitless flat country beyond. An excellent place to chat after worship. In her late 80s, her voice had acquired a gentle lilt married to an accent marked by southern charm. The musical cadence of her voice belied the sharp-edged sword of a gladiator. She turned and looked at the pastor, fresh out of expending his soul in the hopefulness of Christian worship. In other words, in his moment of greatest vulnerability. She looked at him, locked eyes, and said, “What are you doing to us?”
That week, the young clergyman had committed an unforced error in ministry. That trouble was the source of a new pragmatic rule on his ever-evolving list: never argue with a 90-year-old; even if you are right, you lose. That may have been the raw wound she was salting, but there was a deep, heartfelt grief in her voice. Attendance on Sunday had taken a hit for what the pastor knew to be a part of the natural course of life. He could do the math in his head. It wasn’t about him. Her peer group, who were in their 80s and 90s, had suffered a half dozen recent deaths and an equal number of folks who had just crossed the boundary of frailty and could no longer attend with frequency. The moment was one of a dozen, which provoked an interesting question that would preoccupy him for a decade. Aging for this group seems to be a surprise. The stories told by the folks on that patio hadn’t advanced for twenty years.
The patio wasn’t welcoming. It was a trap with only one exit. A church consultant, warning of a tidal wave of impending death — had tried to fix them too. The deck was part of the prescription. A considerable expense had been made on the space: landscaping, seating, a “welcome” banner, and white tablecloth for the treats. And, of course, they followed the usual recommendation to upgrade the coffee. That was the consultant schtick for a while. Better coffee. That will save us. It didn’t. It was surface-dressing on a severe disease that those faithful people, their consultants, that pastor, and their denomination all suffered.
This anecdote is a composite of memories, but until recently, a decade later, the underlying puzzlement of has remained alive in me. Turning the corner on 50 myself has added energy to my curiosity. As dynamic emotional systems, congregations function like people. Human beings make their identities in narratives; for whatever reason, some people and some churches stop narrating their lives as if their story has ended. It is called foreclosure. Folks here stop making meaning in the present and are suffused with nostalgia for a beautiful but irrevocable past (Randal and McKim, 127). The gift of an advancing story is that we have deeper wells of memory and experience to narrate as we age. It is a function of the latter years of our lives that our primary task, in the end, is to receive this story as a gift (McAdams). Folks who have foreclosed their stories — or have been foreclosed on — are denied this gift.
There are many reasons we shut our stories down — including trauma. I suspect that the most common basis for foreclosure, in ourselves and the church, is the failure to live a binary plot given to us that will supposedly save us. A false story, itself diseased. Success is increasing, failure is decreasing, and aging is about decline and loss, not gift and growth. After two decades of ministry, I sense that congregations, their persons, their clergy, and the denomination have confused this story with faithfulness. It does immense, self-inflicted harm. It is absurd. We don’t tell our elderly that they must become younger again to be faithful. Or do we? Worse, yet, it forecloses on what the Bible calls the fullness of life.
The consultants and church hierarchies are right; there is something wrong, but the disease is more subtle; we are all carriers. Especially those of us who think it is our job to fix the church. In this I have done my part. The good news is that we have in the gospel an incredible story of newness coming to the midst of folks whose lives we might think are ended. Mary is too young. Elizabeth is too old. Zechariah is too churchy. Shepherds are untrustworthy. Joseph, his marriage over before it began. The one named "Save"'s life ends on a cross before he could do much saving. A welcome table and better coffee might help. But what God gives to save us is new life in stories we assume are at their end.
-- Rev. Mark Sturgess, Advent 2022
William Randall and A. Elizabeth McKim, Reading Our Lives and The Poetics of Aging (Oxford: Oxford Press), 2008.
Dan P. McAdams, The Stories We Live By: Personal Myths and the Making of the Self (New York: Gilford), 1993.
Rev. Mark F. Sturgess