Paradox and Patience: Lessons from Senior Adults


Called and Sent

Ours is a faith of paradox.

Magnificent,

Mysterious,

Maddening paradox.

The first is actually the last, and last place becomes first.
Giving away brings wealth, while storing up leaves emptiness.
Tiny David defeats gigantic Goliath, shy Moses persuades powerful Pharoah.
To violence we’re called to turn the other cheek, to transgressions forgive and love.
Strength blossoms from vulnerability, resurrection springs from death
The savior is a teeny tiny baby, and redemption comes from naming our brokenness.
Magnificent? Maybe. Maddening and mysterious? As we say in Texas: You bet.

Paradoxical faith is hard to understand and harder to explain.
It’s hard not to have answers and outlines and neat packages tied up with string. Hard to exist in the absence of solutions and happy endings and fairness. Hard to live without logic or comfort or explanation.
Hard to be a minister, one who guides and leads and embodies our faith, when there is no explanation. When I have more questions and doubts than my congregants. Hard to preach when our faith isn’t intuitive or easy, hard to teach the Bible when it’s full of contradictions, hard to comfort the grieving when their pain is real and raw. Hard to bury and marry and pray when I don’t have words to convey God’s mysterious hope. I’m starting to think I was called to help people understand a faith that is not to be understood.

Mysterious, maddening paradox, making me a little bit mad.

In a culture that thrives on answers, uncertainty is a dirty word. So what’s a knowledge-seeking, control-loving, paradox-averse preacher to do?

My salvation has come from my senior adults. If you wikipedia paradox, you will find a picture of older adults. Seniors are talking, walking (or wheelchair riding) embodiments of paradox. Of the mysteriousness of life and loss and love. Of the hardness of a faith that makes no sense. They, at the end of life, teach me how to live.

Aging is at once hard and easy, graceful and undignified, beautiful and ugly. Seniors live abundantly in these tensions, proclaiming the Word in their lives more than I ever could in the pulpit.
Seniors live with battle-worn bodies, brittle bones that betray them with a snap. Broken hips, broken shoulders, broken legs, and more broken hips. One misstep leads to surgery and rehab and delayed summer plans.

Magnificently, these same bodies hold strong, unbreakable spirits. Spirits that pray and laugh and share gratitude that it wasn’t worse. Spirits that continue to care for the sick person in their Sunday school class, play bridge religiously (and tell you about their winnings), and spend hours sharing stories about how they met their partners—smiling as they ignore their pain for memories of love.

They live with incalculable loss. Loss of a grown son to AIDS at age 25. Loss of a teenage daughter to leukemia at only 17. Loss of husbands and wives, of parents and siblings and 40 year long best friends. They watch their peers disappear and are reminded of their own mortality. They weep in my office because they don’t know how to live without their loved one.

Magnificently, they also live with so much fullness and light. Those with the most loss seem to share the most love. They send handwritten notes, intimately revealing their hopes and gratitude and care. They say “I love you” out loud, over and over again, and they mean it. They have painfully learned to seize the moment and leave inhibitions at the door. They don’t let pride hold them back from shouting their innermost joy and attachment.

Some have minds that long ago lost precious memories and the ability to recognize family. Yet these same bodies still smile, embrace, and light up when you enter a room. They know the words to the Lord’s prayer, can sing familiar hymns, and say thank you over and over. Minds that have weakened and bodies that hold the preciousness of the moment. Precious, painful paradox.

They live all this in a society that rejects aging and worships youth. Our culture lacks resources, language, and respect for what it means to grow older, to live in older bodies. We treat older adults as invisible and expendable or see them as “cute” and child-like (if you want to see this preacher mad, patronize one of my senior adults…). This is a reflection for another time, but remarkably, in spite of our anti-aging culture, the folks I meet embody grace and forgiveness and wisdom in the midst of self-denying forces.

What they teach me, each and every day, is the power of living. Living the paradox, embracing the ambiguity, accepting the uncertainty.
Teach me that it’s okay for life not to make sense, because it doesn’t. Help me understand that understanding isn’t the goal.
Okay that a job that brings me so much love and joy often leaves me crying at the end of the day.
Okay that my deepest satisfaction comes from being with others in times of deepest pain.
Okay that I believe passionately in a God of peace, justice, and mercy, despite the fact I live in a world that surrounds me with the opposite.
Okay that a naïve 26 year old minister can share intimate spaces and places with people 50 years my senior.

As much as my heart aches and breaks, the exercise of embracing paradox makes it open for more love. And loss. And the ever-present cycling between them.

I’m not primarily called to understand or explain or make it all better. I’m simply called to live. Live love, live loss, live joyful abundance and devastating pain. To live through crying and laughing, weeping and dancing, silence and talking, listening and hugging. Living paradox, each day, each step of the way.

So, thanks to my gracious seniors, I try to let the paradox wash over me. To give in instead of fighting it away. I’m learning patient acceptance, and radical love in the midst.

What they teach me is the Gospel, the ultimate claim of our faith: they teach me to live a resurrection life. To walk around the world believing and teaching and acting as if life really does overcome death. That light lives in darkness and hope in despair.

They teach me to boldly live the paradoxical gospel.
In all that I do, to live and to love:

Maddeningly

Mysteriously

Magnificently.


5 replies
  1. maria
    maria says:

    Wow. This was so amazing, it brought tears to my eyes. Beautifully, beautifully written! And a powerful reminder of how we need to see Christ also in those broken but still walking bodies, those rambling but still not broken minds. And most of all, in those hearts, brimming with love and wisdom.
    Thank you! I will remember this.

    Reply
  2. Rachel Small
    Rachel Small says:

    Fantastic, Kate! You’ve addressed this paradox beautifully without any neat bows. I hope your seniors get to see what a gift they’ve given you. And I hope you know what a gift you’ve given us by sharing it. Merry Christmas.

    Reply
  3. Ashley
    Ashley says:

    Wow, you have put my thoughts, feelings, and prayers about ministry with seniors into words. Thank you!! I, too, am 26 and am primarily ministering with seniors. We are in the retirement area of north-central Florida (near The Villages). It is a wonderful place to be and I second your writings with an Amen Thanks be to God!

    Reply
  4. Ashley Nicolls
    Ashley Nicolls says:

    Wow, you have put my thoughts, feelings, and prayers about ministry with seniors into words. Thank you!! I, too, am 26 and am primarily ministering with seniors. We are in the retirement area of north-central Florida (near The Villages). It is a wonderful place to be and I second your writings with an Amen Thanks be to God!

    Reply

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