(originally posted 10/06/2020)
Joe Newman is 107 years old. Anita Sampson, who recently celebrated her 100th birthday, is Joe’s fiancée (you read that right). Joe said he has survived two World Wars, the 1918 Flu Pandemic, and the Great Depression. His advice after reflecting on all he has lived through? “Always look on the bright side. Don’t spend time worrying about what’s going to happen since what will happen will happen.” He says the coronavirus is just another event in his life and believes we should look forward to whatever time we have, be it years, weeks, or just days, and then hope for another one. Maybe work on those wedding plans – or not. (Anita has reportedly demanded a “Promise” ring by Tuesday, or she’s moving back to her own rocker!) But, for now, it’s nap time.
Since there are now so many American Centenarians, there have been several studies regarding these 100+-year-old folks. They all have survived so much. They have lived through misery, hunger, job loss, financial ruin, the loss of loved ones, and every imaginable heartache along the way. But that’s not the whole story. There are also beauty and blessings intermingled with suffering.
The most common and inspiring thread was just as I suspected. During the Depression, people who went beyond simply surviving learned to support and care for each other. They were generous with a few extra dollars, food from their gardens, and emotional support. Many discovered a deep well of strength and optimism that carried them beyond those tough times. They had a shared sense of gratitude, kindness toward others, and even a feeling of being blessed in the midst of unimaginable hardships. They learned acceptance of circumstances you cannot control. And hope – always hope.
Today they will tell you that happiness and fulfillment come from helping others; having a positive and optimistic attitude. Most have a strong faith and a deep commitment and passion for a cause beyond themselves. And now, here we are in the midst of one of our most difficult and challenging times, and our young people are suffering. What can we pass on from the wisdom of what is known as the Greatest Generation and our own life experiences?
I believe those of us who have not simply survived but, against all odds, have thrived during this screwed-up mess called human life are not finished yet. We have a calling, a responsibility actually, to share those experiences with younger generations in these desperate, seemingly hopeless times. We owe it to them. We have a treasure trove of stories I believe they are hungry for.
I’m not close to 100, except for those achy things that are the bane of my existence. But in my seventy-one years, I have learned so much about the ugliness and beauty of the human condition, about reality and resilience. I have experienced joy and sorrow, loss and pain and grief, and epic moments of delight and wonder and unexplainable joy. I hate and love, horde and give generously, fear and throw caution to the wind.
One moment I close in on myself, and another, I can open up with compassion and empathy for the brokenness that surrounds me. I’m a mixed bag of pride and humility. I can be your biggest fan or your most vocal adversary. I can be quiet and reflective or noisy and blow things up. I’m confusing, even to myself! I think that makes me human, albeit a very messy, bewildering human, like everyone else – if everyone else were honest. Anne Lamott says it beautifully, “Everyone is screwed up, broken, clingy, and scared. So there’s no sense wanting to be differently screwed up than you already are.”
What we are dealing with today: a failing economy, children going to bed hungry, job losses, Covid, wildfires, hurricanes, racial tensions, protests, and violence in the streets is nothing new. But, all at once? Good Lord! Think about all those younger than us that have not lived long enough to feel any sense of hope for their future because they have not had much of a past to draw that hope from, and from the statistics, few of them have faith in God either.
I believe we are in the midst of our collective dark night of the soul, and there’s a double whammy for those younger generations that have not found religion, or even God, to be relevant. They have rejected a religion based on duty and obligation. No thanks.
Religion, as we have come to know it since the first century, has always been top-down and authoritarian. But that is not God’s way. He sent Jesus on a mission to show his steadfast, unwavering love to the lost and broken. I have openly admitted that I have given up on the Institutional Church, but I have not given up on God or my faith, which is couched in awe and wonder at the marvels of all of creation.
Jesus didn’t wander the streets playing whack-a-mole with anyone who didn’t follow the rules, memorize rote prayers, or tithe 10%. When he said, “follow me”, he didn’t mean act virtuous, he meant be virtuous. Be kind and gentle and caring to your brothers and sisters that suffer life’s cruelties. Consider these verses: Jesus touched the blind man (Mark 8:22), he touched the deaf and mute man (Mark 7:33), he touched the leper (Matthew 8:3). The gentle, compassionate, loving touch of Jesus is what we are called to emulate.
I’m not gonna lie, it can be scary! Reaching out will require some risk and could result in ridicule or rejection from others. Hum…isn’t that what Jesus accepted to his death? Do you think for one moment that Jesus or the countless martyrs throughout history went to their deaths for a bargain-basement god? Would you?
Surely God put wisdom and gray hair together for a reason. Like Esther, we were made for such a time as this. People are scared and hurting. We have been there and hopefully have experienced the love and healing power of God. Every life has a story, and those are stories that must be told. If your story begins and ends with you, we all lose a bit of God’s glory.
So, what is your story? How have you overcome hurt and pain? How have you hurt others? How have you prevailed over life’s disappointments? How do you find joy and peace in these trying times? I Peter 3:15 tells us to “always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope.” Are you ready?
People today, especially young people, are living out of fear instead of the abundance of life God has promised each of us. What we fail to understand is that it isn’t God being the mean, authoritarian father that is holding back on us. It’s us holding back. It’s us not believing our story matters. I truly feel this is a remarkable time for us old folks who are still hanging around to get ourselves off our rockers and into the fray. Why should we bother? Do they even want to hear from us? Well, you decide:
Let’s focus on what young adults (ages 18-25) are dealing with in this frightening and uncertain time:
Jeffrey Arnett, a psychologist at Clark University, says, “The pandemic struck students at a particularly vulnerable age.” He explains that this is “a time of life when many different directions remain possible, when little about the future has been decided for certain, when the scope of independent exploration of life’s possibilities is greater for most people than it will be at any other period of the life course.”
So, picture these young people that have likely never before experienced even one of the many crises we’re facing today. They have had their certainties about life jerked out from under them without any warning.
Perhaps there is a glimmer of hope. In one study, young people said they were empowered by forming connections, but they admitted they did not always know how to form them. Psychologists at the University of Manchester have found another factor critical to young adults’ resiliency — the strength of their social bonds able to provide them with the support needed to weather the worst storms. Check this out for inspiration: https://www.nunsandnones.org/
So, as their lives seem to be falling apart, that leaves a huge gap to be filled, a gap between their current reality and hope. And that’s where God can use us to step in if dancing in the midst of tragedy is our specialty. There, of course, is a hurdle to jump first (not that God isn’t the world’s best hurdle jumper!). They don’t think much of religion or God or the pain of Judgment Day…..Ohhhh, don’t get me started on “God’s gonna-take-you-to-the-woodshed on Judgment Day”! Let’s quickly move on…
A study from National Catholic Reporter asks: “Why are young Catholics going, going, gone?” Since we know it’s not just Catholics that have left their faith, this is very telling for all young adults that feel disenfranchised and left to their own devices to find their way. “Whether it’s feelings of being judged by religious leaders who don’t know or understand them, or being forced by their parents to attend church, or witnessing the sexual abuse scandal and the hypocrisy of church hierarchy, young people are expressing a desire both to break free from organized religion and to be part of a community. As emerging adults continue to navigate a difficult period, it is crucially important that they are able to maintain wellbeing and seek support where needed from those around them.” https://www.ncronline.org/news/parish/study-asks-why-are-young-catholics-going-going-gon
“Belonging before believing” may be the key to all of this! The Institutional Church teaches “rules” necessary to live as a “good” person of faith is expected to. That rigid voice has become old and tiresome, void of meaning and purpose. It cannot address the longing of a soul that knows deep down it belongs to something bigger, something more.
Where do we see in any of Jesus’ teachings to the masses gathered everywhere he went that he stopped mid-sermon for an alter call? “Look, guys, we know you’re hungry after walking for miles and sitting here in the heat for hours. The food trucks won’t be coming any time soon…BUT…we’ve got fish! Come on up and get yourselves saved, and you get some!”
Years ago, when I was a youth minister, one of the most basic truths that I grew to understand about human longing and relationships came from one statement, “I don’t care how much you know until I know how much you care.”
I didn’t have any idea what I was doing when I first got some teens in our church together to start a youth group. Truth be told, I was probably needier than they were, but I sincerely wanted to give them a place to gather, safely question anything about their faith (when Father wasn’t within earshot), serve the community, and have fun. Granted, I suffered the pains of having an A.D.D. brain that called into question my “fly by the seat of your pants” leadership style. More than one parent informed me how unorganized I was – thank you very much. Of course, they were too busy to help.
But here’s the thing: not one of the kids walked away because a meeting was rescheduled due to a bit of forgetfulness by one flighty adult. Not one kid complained when said flighty adult was the only one who thought an icebreaker consisting of sticking life savers on someone’s face was funny. I still think that one’s funny! But, oh well. (Note to self: teenager = insecurity. Got it.) They forgave my every misstep as we all learned together. Why? Because they knew I loved them. That’s it. That’s all that mattered…well…except that I made some badass cookies!
I recall a young pastor we had, new out of seminary. He came to a meeting one night and later complained that there were only ten kids there. So, why did we bother? I didn’t see that one coming and had no reply for him until a few days later. I invited a therapist to come speak to the kids about suicide: how to recognize it and what to do if they suspected a friend was at risk. One of the “just ten kids” at that meeting called me a couple of days later to thank me – like sobbing thanking me – for having her there. He got her phone number afterward and called her because he was contemplating suicide. They began therapy sessions with his mom. I still get teary when I think about that.
We all have life’s most critical and basic questions that need to be answered if we are to live fully the lives we were meant to live. Who am I? Why am I here? What is God’s purpose for me? Are you someone that can help young people answer those questions? You can, you know, just by being present to them, listening to them, and trusting God. Knowing he has already given you all the tools you need to fulfill your own destiny – you can now help them do the same.