Excerpts from a sermon preached on June 10
Trinity Church Wall Street, New York City
Do you ever feel discouraged and wonder if all the effort is worthwhile? Are you ever tempted to give up and retreat into yourself? If so, you’re not alone. It happens to everybody, and it’s a particular temptation in these times that try our weary souls.
Over the past two decades, thanks to the internet and the 24-hour news cycle, we have witnessed tragedy, violence, deceit and disappointment over and over again, making it tempting for many of us to throw in the towel and pull a blanket over our heads. In fact, cocooning - retreating from the world - is a growing consumer and lifestyle trend.
The temptation to “lose heart” is as old as history itself. Paul writes to the Church in Corinth: “We do not lose heart;” (NRSV) “We’re not giving up;” (The Message); “We will never collapse;” (Phillips) or in the words of the Common English Bible, “We’re not depressed…[For] even though outwardly we are wasting away, inwardly we are being renewed day by day.” (Taussig).
The “outer nature” of which Paul speaks is the daily grind that includes pain, suffering, betrayal, loss and defeat. Our “inner nature” is the not-yet-perfect or complete life that emerges, evolves and matures through our relationship with God. Thus, Paul contrasts our “outer nature” as a tent compared with our “inner nature” as a house or building “not made with [human] hands,” but permanent and eternal.
Having read this passage at dozens of funerals, Paul’s words now hit home for me in a new way. For the past two years, I’ve been trying not to lose heart, get depressed, collapse, or give up as my outer nature - that is, my brain - is wasting away, literally shrinking due to early onset dementia. What gives me heart - in other words, hope and encouragement - is that my inner and spiritual nature, the person I am on the inside, is being renewed, restored, refreshed and recreated by God each and every day.
While my earthly tent is slowly degenerating, and things on the outside might look as if they are falling apart, my home in God’s realm - even here on earth - is becoming a really beautiful mansion, and “not a day goes by without God’s unfolding grace.” (The Message).
Sure there are challenges as I struggle with aspects of life that I used to take for granted. While I get tentative and anxious, afraid that I will forget something important, not recognize someone I know, or that I will become overwhelmed by my environment, at this stage of my disease, I’m also experiencing life in some new and wonderful ways, and I’m beginning to think that dementia has provided me with a short-cut to the realm of God.
The great wisdom teachers, including Jesus and his apostle Paul, speak of dying to oneself and being reborn, or losing life and finding it anew. Richard Rohr calls this process “falling upward” into the second half of life, discovering what might be described as the fullness of life.
The first half of life is about building a container called identity and filling it with family, friends, education, career, hobbies and stuff. We also fill our first half of life container with successes and failures, accomplishments and defeats.
The second half of life happens when the contents of our identity containers are spilled out and refined, and the container – worn, dirty, chipped and perhaps even broken and re-glued – is refilled. Now with all of its contraction and paradox, pain and joy, we hold our containers in what Rohr calls luminous gravitas, a bright sadness.
I realize that I’m falling upward – into the fullness of life – with dementia. I have no doubt that I am losing the life I’ve always known. I’m also certain that I’m finding a new one. We all stumble or fall into the second half of our lives through various ways: loss of a job or a spouse, illness, retirement, or that unexplainable midlife crisis.
Our hardships can be gifts in disguise, because they help us develop courage, resilience, love, compassion and faith, the cornerstones of a firm foundation. And, in the meantime, the in-between time, as we endure the demolition and new construction, wondering what the future holds, we have to believe that we are a work in progress.
All of us are given “opportunities to get close to life.” We just have to go along for the ride. Annie Dillard was correct in her observation that, “We should all be wearing crash helmets.” For God is not finished with us. Our present situation is not our final destination. No matter what challenges life hands us, God is still building a great mansion, a home for all of creation, a body worthy of the divine residence. So don’t lose heart. Rather, enjoy living in a construction zone! - Tracey