Apostles Anglican Church
Fr. John A. Roop
Canon Theologian, Anglican Diocese of the South
Finishing Well: Session One — Identity
The Lord be with you.
And with your spirit.
Let us pray.
A Collect for Guidance
Heavenly Father, in you we live and move and have our being: We humbly pray you so to guide and govern us by your Holy Spirit, that in all the cares and occupations of our life we may not forget you, but may remember that we are ever walking in your sight; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
I enjoy track and field competitions: watching them, not participating in them. I’m the farthest thing from an expert on that sport, but I have noticed a few things in years of watching races. There is very little strategy in the short races, in the sprints: start fast, run as hard as you can, cross the finish line first. That’s it. But, in the middle and long distance races, strategy is essential. Too fast in the early laps and fatigue will catch up with you before the end. Too slow in the early laps and you simply will not be able to make up for lost distance and time. Stay with the pack and you risk being boxed in and unable to make your move at the right time. There is great art and science, strategy and skill, to running a race and to finishing a race well. Finishing well does not happen by accident, but only by intention: purpose, practice, persistence.
1 Corinthians 9:24–27 (ESV): Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. 25 Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. 26 So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. 27 But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.
Paul likens our lives in Christ to a race. Like any analogy, this one fails if we push it too far and demand more of it than Paul intended. What he meant is clear enough though. Finishing this race well will not happen by accident, but only by intention: purpose, practice, persistence. This race of faith — for most of us — is not a sprint, but a middle or long distance race, perhaps even a marathon. Finishing well brings us the victory and the prize.
Some ten years after writing this to the Corinthian Church, Paul was imprisoned in Rome and was confident that his death was imminent. He wrote what would become his final canonical letter to Timothy, a second bit of correspondence to his young protégé. Paul was still thinking about the race, still thinking about finishing well:
2 Timothy 4:6–8 (ESV): For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure has come. 7 I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. 8 Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing.
Paul has run well. Paul has finished well. All that remains is the breaking of the runners’ tape at the finish line and the awarding of the prize, the crown of righteousness.
Perhaps midway between the letters of 1 Corinthians and 2 Timothy, Paul wrote to the Philippian Church. He writes of his goal to gain Christ, to be found in him, to know him and the power of his resurrection.
Philippians 3:12–16 (ESV): Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. 13 Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. 15 Let those of us who are mature think this way, and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal that also to you. 16 Only let us hold true to what we have attained.
Straining forward. Have you ever seen the finish of a very close race where the runners lean forward near the finish, sometimes leaning so far that they go tumbling across the finish line? If we want to finish this race of faith — this life we’ve been given in Christ — and finish well, then between the starter’s pistol and the breaking of the runners’ tape at the finish line, we must strain forward, we must press on toward the goal with all the purpose, practice, and persistence God makes possible for us.
If national and family statistics hold true, I’m in the final few laps of this race. Finishing well becomes more important to me daily, and certainly yearly. Unlike Paul, I haven’t done it yet, so I am no expert. But, I’m learning. This class is a chance for us to learn together — to learn from God and from the saints and from one another — what it means to finish well: with purpose, practice, and persistence. But, before the end comes the beginning, and it is to that we now turn.
At the Starting Line: Identity
There are a few things in life that make me viscerally and irrationally irritated. Here’s one for example. In America, until this last generation, we had a simple rule that made the movement of people and vehicles go smoothly: keep to the right. We drive on the right side of the road. We go up, or down, the right side of the stairs. We enter, or exit, the right hand door in a set of double doors. When walking down a crowded hallway, we keep to the right. At least, we used to. But, not anymore it seems, and that irritates me, largely because I don’t understand the change. I open a right-side door to enter a building and ten people stream through coming out, leaving the proper exit door unused. Or I can’t make my way through a hallway because people are walking toward me on the right side, which is actually the wrong side. It is a little thing, I know, but it’s irritating to me.
Here’s another pet peeve, and I’ll bet you’ve experienced it. You are in a meeting — perhaps it’s a professional or social gathering, a workshop, a class, a club — probably the first such meeting for the group. The host announces, “Let’s begin by going around the room and introducing ourselves to one another. Just stand and say a few words about yourself.” At this point, I’m looking for the exit. I hate this exercise, and that is describing my reaction mildly; it is a fiercely visceral and irrational hatred, but it is real and it is mine nonetheless.
I’ve thought about why I dislike the practice so much, and I’ve decided on these explanations.
1. It is intrusive. No one should be forced to reveal personal details to strangers. What I reveal, to whom I reveal it, and when I reveal it should be entirely my choice.
2. It is reductionist. I have lived over six decades, and now I am expected to reduce a full and rich life to a few bullet points in fifteen seconds? I am larger than that, and I resent being reduced to that.
3. It is pointless. Do I honestly think any of the twenty people in the room care about the tidbits of my life? Will I honestly remember anything anyone else says? No and no. It’s a grand waste of time inflicted upon a group by someone who doesn’t know how to open a meeting properly.
These are just rationalizations after the fact. I didn’t come to hate the practice because of these notions. They are just the way I try to justify to myself and others why I hate it. They may really be as irrational as my underlying irritation.
But there is something important we can learn from that irritating exercise, so let’s stay with it for a moment. When people are asked to introduce themselves in that way, what kinds of things do they typically say?
My name is [name].
I am [occupation].
I am [marital status] and I have [number of children].
For fun I like to [interests and hobbies].
I am here today because [reason for attending].
Here’s the rub. Sooner or later almost all of these identity markers will be preceded by, “I used to do,” or “I used to be.” Many of these important things by which we create and define our identity will one day change. Those of mature years — like myself — know that they may change several times over. Taking myself as an example:
I used to be a student, an engineer, and a teacher. Now, I am retired from all that.
I am married, but one day either my wife will be a widow or I will be a widower — unless I fall asleep at the wheel while she’s my passenger and we go together.
I have a grown daughter, which means that I am no longer a father in the same sense as I once was. While I will always be her father, the nature of that parental relationship has changed.
I used to hike, bike, run, teach karate, teach scuba diving, teach banjo and guitar, but no more. I don’t really seem to have a hobby, as such, any longer.
So here’s the question: when you are no longer your job, when the defining familial relationships have ended or changed, when you have left passionate hobbies behind — in short, when you’ve stripped away almost everything that people think constitute identity — what is left? Who are you when you are not these things, when you are not who you used to be?
For the Christian, the answers to these questions are rooted in baptism. First, in the Rite of Holy Baptism, the candidate is named. This may be the birth name, or a new, baptismal name may be chosen. Once the candidate has been baptized, the Celebrant — typically priest or bishop — makes the sign of cross on the candidate’s forehead with the Oil of Chrism, saying:
N., you are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ’s own for ever. Amen.
And then the Celebrant prays:
Heavenly Father, we thank you that by water and the Holy Spirit you have bestowed upon this your servant the forgiveness of sin, received him as your own child by adoption, made him a member of your holy Church, and raised him to the new life of grace. Sustain him, O Lord, in your Holy Spirit, that he may enjoy everlasting salvation through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
What is happening in the Sacrament? In part, the candidate, whether infant or adult, is being given a new identity: a child of God by adoption and a member of the holy Church (the body of Christ) — Christ’s own for ever.
Now, imagine this. The next time you are asked to introduce yourself at a first meeting, stand and say:
My name is [N.]. I am a child of God by adoption in baptism and a member of the one, holy, catholic, and Apostolic Church of the Lord Jesus Christ. I am sealed as Christ’s own forever.
I’ve actually seen something like this happen at the University of Tennessee. On the first day of class, my mathematics professor walked in and said:
Hello. My name is [N.]. All you really need to know about me is this: I am a servant of the Most High God.
And, with that, he began our first class. As an aside, on the last day of class, the students spontaneously rose and gave him a standing ovation for the excellence with which had conducted the class and the care he had shown for his students. He finished well the work he had begun — teaching a mathematics class — for the glory of God.
Here is the point to all this. In Christ, our identity is given by God and received, not constructed, by us. Christian identity is a gift. It is fundamentally relational; Christian identity is not isolated in the individual but is created and defined in relationship to God.
And, that identity persists. For the faithful Christian there is no, “I used to be,” in that identity. We remember this and insist on it at the time of death. In the Commendation — the Last Rites — the priest once again anoints the dying with oil — in a beautiful act of symmetry with the oil of chrism at baptism — and says:
Depart, O Christian soul, out of this world;
In the Name of God the Father Almighty who created you;
In the Name of Jesus Christ who redeemed you;
In the Name of the Holy Spirit who sanctifies you.
May your rest be this day in peace, and your dwelling place in the Paradise of God.
And then the priest prays:
Into your hands, O merciful Savior, we commend your servant N (using the name given at baptism, ending the race as it began). Acknowledge, we humbly beseech you, a sheep of your own fold, a lamb of your own flock, a sinner of your own redeeming. Receive him into the arms of your mercy, into the blessed rest of everlasting peace, and into the glorious company of the saints in light. Amen.
Though the metaphorical language is a bit different in the rites of Holy Baptism and the Burial of the Dead, the identity is the same: child of God (baptism), sheep of Christ’s fold (commendation), member of the holy Church (baptism), lamb of Christ’s own flock (commendation). This identity persists from baptism to death, and even beyond. There is no “used to be” in it. This is who you are when all other worldly markers of identity are relinquished by choice or stripped away by circumstances, age, or infirmity.
Are these other markers of identity unimportant then: professional and familial relationships, goals, hobbies, and the like? Not at all! They are the way — in our moment, in our place — that we express, work out, and grow into our God given baptismal identity, provided they are faithful to and consonant with that identity. They are not our essential identity, but they are expressions — hopefully, Godly expressions — of it. Though they may — almost certainly will — change with time, the fundamental/essential identity we received in baptism will not change.
If we are to finish the race well, we must know who we are. For the Christian, the truth of who we are lies in the truth of whose we are.
Why is this important? As we age, our enlightened, Western culture imposes on us — or tries to impose on us — a false sense of identity. What is the image — and the expectations — of older people in our culture?
“I am sixty-five and I guess that puts me in with the geriatrics,” James Thurber remarked. “But if there were fifteen months in every year, I’d only be forty-eight. That’s the trouble with us: We number everything.”
To be over sixty-five in an age like ours is to feel bad even when we feel good. We are, after all, “old” now. Except, we don’t feel “old.” And we don’t think “old.” And we work very hard at not looking “old” — whatever looking old is supposed to mean. But, oh, we have been taught to mind “old.” We’re too old to get a job, they tell us — but they want us to volunteer all the time. We’re too old to drive a car, they fear — but there are proportionally far more automobile accidents caused by drivers between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five than by drivers over sixty-five. We’re too old to get health insurance — but we haven’t been seriously ill for years.
Which leads us to the larger question, the real question: what difference does it make how wise we are, how well we are, how alert we are, how involved we are after we’re sixty-five? After all, once you reach retirement age in this culture, everything is canceled. We’re “old” now, and we know it. And the rest of the world knows it, too. We’re “old” — translate “useless,” translate “unwanted,” translate “out of place,” translate “incompetent.” We are the over-the-hill-gang, our birthday cards say. And we laugh — as well as we can — but, if the truth were known, the laugh comes with a stab in the psyche (Chittister, 2008, p. 21-22).
Our culture is schizophrenic when it comes to the elderly. If we are financially able, they expect to find us in retirement villages squandering our time and money checking off our bucket lists. If we have fewer resources, they expect us to be in nursing homes placing a financial burden on our families — selfish either way. If we are still highly competent and in positions of leadership, they want us to step aside or step down to make way for the next generation; then they want us to baby-sit the children of that next generation. These are generalizations, a painting with broad strokes, stereotypes. But, they are true often enough to have become stereotypes. Our culture does not really have a consistent set of values when it comes to the elderly, a firm set of convictions of the worth and dignity of prior generations. That does not surprise me; our culture has lost the sense of worth and dignity of human life, because it has lost a sense of human identity rooted and grounded in God.
But, it should be different — very different — in the Church. Far from not knowing what to do with the elderly, the Church should have some great and clear expectations for them. We need to rethink our language to better express this. In the Christian ethos, in the Church, we do not have so much the elderly as we do the Elders, not so much the vulnerable as the venerable, not so much the wizened (the shriveled) as the wise. It should be this way in our churches. If it is not, it is because the elders, the churches, or both have been seduced and ensnared by the culture; it is because we have forgotten or failed to live into our identity. That is why we must recover our theology of the creation of man in the image of God, and the renewal/rebirth of that image in the water of baptism. Neither the Church corporately nor we individually can allow the culture to establish our identities:
Romans 12:1–2 (ESV): I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. 2 Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.
As the Church we struggle with this conformity to the world in all areas, and certainly with respect to our elders. I find it telling that our Book of Common Prayer has a collect For the Elderly, but not a prayer of thanksgiving for and empowerment of the elders among us.
56. FOR THE ELDERLY
Look with mercy, O God our Father, on all whose increasing years bring them weakness, distress, or isolation [especially _____]. Provide for them homes of dignity and peace; give them understanding helpers, and the willingness to accept help; and as their strength diminishes, increase their faith and their assurance of your love; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Why not this also?
56 B. FOR THE ELDERS
Look with continued blessing, O God our Father, on all whose increasing years have worked in them, through your grace, spiritual strength, wisdom, and faithfulness. Provide for them places of service and challenge befitting their gifts; give them willing children in the faith that they may raise up and equip a new generation for service; and, as they run with perseverance the race before them, let them press on toward the prize of the upward call in Christ Jesus, who with you and the Holy Spirit, lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Here’s the truth we all must face. If we live long enough — if God grants us the gift of years — we will diminish physically and in that limited sense become elderly. The real question is whether we will also grow in spiritual strength and become elders. That must be our goal as we run the race of faith and near the finish line.
Let us pray.
Collect (The Baptism of Our Lord)
Eternal Father, at the baptism of Jesus you revealed him to be your Son, and your Holy Spirit descended upon him like a dove: Grant that we, who are born again by water and the Spirit, may be faithful as your adopted children; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Old Age In Scripture
It is not only our culture that is ambivalent toward aging; Scripture itself offers a mixed perspective on advancing years.
Moses is extolled for his vigor until the moment he died according to the word of the LORD.
Deuteronomy 34:7–8 (ESV): 7 Moses was 120 years old when he died. His eye was undimmed, and his vigor unabated. 8 And the people of Israel wept for Moses in the plains of Moab thirty days. Then the days of weeping and mourning for Moses were ended.
Joshua was making the divisions of the land that was yet to be conquered, and Caleb, the only other adult remaining from the original spying of the land forty years earlier had a request:
Joshua 14:6–12 (ESV): 6 Then the people of Judah came to Joshua at Gilgal. And Caleb the son of Jephunneh the Kenizzite said to him, “You know what the Lord said to Moses the man of God in Kadesh-barnea concerning you and me. 7 I was forty years old when Moses the servant of the Lord sent me from Kadesh-barnea to spy out the land, and I brought him word again as it was in my heart. 8 But my brothers who went up with me made the heart of the people melt; yet I wholly followed the Lord my God. 9 And Moses swore on that day, saying, ‘Surely the land on which your foot has trodden shall be an inheritance for you and your children forever, because you have wholly followed the Lord my God.’ 10 And now, behold, the Lord has kept me alive, just as he said, these forty-five years since the time that the Lord spoke this word to Moses, while Israel walked in the wilderness. And now, behold, I am this day eighty-five years old. 11 I am still as strong today as I was in the day that Moses sent me; my strength now is as my strength was then, for war and for going and coming. 12 So now give me this hill country of which the Lord spoke on that day, for you heard on that day how the Anakim were there, with great fortified cities. It may be that the Lord will be with me, and I shall drive them out just as the Lord said.”
Caleb is requesting giant territory. He has been waiting forty-five years and now, at age eighty-five, he plans to kill him some giants. And he did.
Joshua died just ten years shy of Moses, at the age of 110 years, apparently leading Israel until the moment of his departure. It was near the end of his life when he gathered the people and testified to the faithfulness of God by recounting Israel’s history. And he challenged them:
Joshua 24:14–15 (ESV): 14 “Now therefore fear the Lord and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness. Put away the gods that your fathers served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the Lord. 15 And if it is evil in your eyes to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your fathers served in the region beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you dwell. But as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.”
David extols the faithfulness of God that he has seen manifest throughout his long life:
Psalm 37:25 (ESV): 25 I have been young, and now am old,
yet I have not seen the righteous forsaken
or his children begging for bread.
And there is this general teaching in Proverbs:
Proverbs 16:31 (ESV): 31 Gray hair is a crown of glory;
it is gained in a righteous life.
Yet, against this favorable view of old age in the Old Testament, there stands Ecclesiastes 12, one of the most depressing chapters in perhaps the most depressing book in all Scripture:
Ecclesiastes 12:1–8 (ESV): 12 Remember also your Creator in the days of your youth, before the evil days come and the years draw near of which you will say, “I have no pleasure in them”; 2 before the sun and the light and the moon and the stars are darkened and the clouds return after the rain, 3 in the day when the keepers of the house tremble, and the strong men are bent, and the grinders cease because they are few, and those who look through the windows are dimmed, 4 and the doors on the street are shut—when the sound of the grinding is low, and one rises up at the sound of a bird, and all the daughters of song are brought low— 5 they are afraid also of what is high, and terrors are in the way; the almond tree blossoms, the grasshopper drags itself along, and desire fails, because man is going to his eternal home, and the mourners go about the streets— 6 before the silver cord is snapped, or the golden bowl is broken, or the pitcher is shattered at the fountain, or the wheel broken at the cistern, 7 and the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to God who gave it. 8 Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher; all is vanity.
Don’t be fooled by the poetic language. The Preacher is saying that old age is nothing but diminishment, misery, and futility; that is what we all have to look forward to: evil days with no pleasure in them. Arms grow weak, legs won’t hold us up, teeth fall out, eyesight fades, ears can’t pick out a friend’s voice, desire vanishes and fears prevail.
So, surveying the Old Testament, we are left with that very mixed impression of old age. And, that is true to my experience. Advancing in years is a mixed bag.
The New Testament is a bit more consistently optimistic. It witnesses to the faithfulness and blessedness of elders such as Zechariah and Elizabeth, aged parents of John the Baptist; Simeon (presumed to be old) and Anna the Prophetess who saw and bore prophetic witness to Jesus as he was presented in the Temple. Then there is the designation of leaders in the church as πρεσβύτεροι (presbyters), which is rightly translated as elders: elders in the faith, certainly, but also likely mature in years. The church is also instructed to honor — that is, to support — widows who are elderly, sixty years or older. There is the sense in the New Testament that God honors years of faithfulness and continues to put these elders to good and productive Gospel work. In the New Testament we do not find the dismal view of old age that Ecclesiastes presents in the Old Testament.
Paul also has a word about growing older and the diminishment that comes from it. I will just mention it here and circle back around to it later:
2 Corinthians 4:16–5:1 (ESV): 16 So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. 17 For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, 18 as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.
Chittister, J. (2008). The gift of years: Growing older gracefully. Katonah, NY: BlueBridge.