I have two beautiful, colorful maps on my study wall. I love them. The only problem is that they are wrong. They were drawn according to the best cartographic knowledge at the time, but that was when North America was unknown to the artist.
For those of us entering our senior years, the map of the future is also unknown. What will we do in retirement? Will we have enough money? Where will we live? When will we die? And most important, what will the terrain of our spiritual journey look like? What will be happening in our souls? Will we like it, and what happens if we don’t?
The landscape of our lives in this season of aging is always changing. Even if our circumstances stay the same for long periods of time, our bodies and souls continue to move forward in years. Every day we live in the space between who we are and who we are becoming. This liminal space can be scary because we don’t have a map to follow. We have never been here before.
Experience God in liminal space
As I experience the ever changing landscape of aging, I find myself thinking of the Israelites in the Hebrew scriptures. After decades of living in Egypt, they leave their familiar lives to travel into unknown territory. Never mind that they were leaving a life of slavery—they are still in that uncertain space between what they knew, what they had never experienced, and what they could not predict.
Since I have never grown old before, I want to learn from the Israelites what it is like to travel into the unknown. I especially want to see how God might be with me in this liminal space. But first I need to admit some of the negative ways I am like the Israelites.
Like these ancient people, I am apt to be afraid and to complain. When the Israelites look back and see the Egyptians chasing them, they are terrified. They complain to Moses, “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness? . . . It would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness!” (Exod. 14:11–12).
As I face the losses of my senior years, I too am afraid and complain. I am afraid when my energy runs out before my day is done. What will happen to all the unfinished tasks? Will people think less of me because I can’t do what I used to do? I am also afraid of medical problems. Does that ache or pain mean something serious? What is wrong with me? And then, on my bad days, I complain. Why can’t I do what I used to do? Why did things have to change? On a really bad day, I reflect the despair of the Israelites. Surely it would have been better if I had died young.
Into these fears and complaints, the Spirit of God whispers to me what Moses says to the Israelites: “Do not be afraid, stand firm, and see the deliverance that the Lord will accomplish for you today. . . . The Lord will fight for you, and you have only to keep still” (Exod. 14:13–14).
This is God’s invitation to me as I navigate old age: You don’t need to be afraid. I am with you. Just be still and listen for my love, listen for my mercy. As I muse on this invitation, I think of three perspectives I want to remember.
Notice God’s grace every day
The apostle Paul writes, “Even though on the outside it often looks like things are falling apart on us, on the inside, where God is making new life, not a day goes by without his unfolding grace” (2 Cor. 4:16, MSG). What good news this is for those of us who are aging and “falling apart” on the outside. God invites us to renewal on the inside.
The Daily Examen is a simple practice to help us notice God’s work in us. This ancient discipline does not mean examining our lives to see all that we have done wrong. It is actually an invitation to ask ourselves, When today did I feel closest to God? When did I feel most distant from God? When did I experience love today? And when did I express love to others today?
As we ask ourselves these questions, we will notice what parts of our lives are most likely to strengthen our relationship with God. We will notice what activities drain us the most. And we will learn to focus our attention on what is most life-giving to us and most loving in our relationships with others. In short, we will become more and more aware of God’s “unfolding grace.”
Learn to be still
God’s words to the Israelites sound countercultural to us. God says to them, “You have only to keep still.” This is not what we have been taught. We learned early on to look out for ourselves, to keep busy and rest only when the job is done. Now, in our senior years, we need to reconsider this advice. As we face the loss of our energy, careers, and familiar roles, God invites us, as God does the Israelites, to be still.
“Be still,” God says, “and know that I am God!” (Ps. 46:10). The opportunity to be quiet, to sit in silence, may be one of the greatest invitations of the aging process. It may in fact be one of the main reasons God allows us to age. But it is a new experience for most of us. In this season of life, God invites us to be still, to listen for the whispers of the Spirit as we learn to sit quietly in God’s presence. For most of us, this too is liminal space.
As we sit quietly, we learn to hold more loosely the things that used to be so important to us, including the demands of our ego to look good, be ever helpful, and be always in control. The apostle Paul says, “My ego is no longer central. It is no longer important that I appear righteous before you or have your good opinion, and I am no longer driven to impress God. Christ lives in me” (Gal. 2:20–21, MSG). As we age, we are invited to be still and to experience in deeper and deeper ways the grace of these words.
Pay attention to the Holy Spirit
The Holy Spirit is active long before the Israelites are led out of Egypt by a pillar of cloud and fire. On a day when I can only wish the Spirit would guide me with fire or a cloud, I try to remember the second verse of the Bible: “Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters” (Gen. 1:2, NIV).
As we journey into old age, the future may look formless and empty. But God is creating something new, and the Holy Spirit is hovering over the darkness. We may not have pillars of fire to guide us, but we do have the gentle presence of the Spirit. Jesus says, “The Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you” (John 14:26).
It is not too late to learn to listen to the Holy Spirit, reminding us of all we have learned in our younger years about love and grace and bringing to mind new ways God may be changing us. Even on our bad days, the Spirit is with us.
“The moment we get tired in the waiting,” Paul writes, “God’s Spirit is right alongside helping us along. If we don’t know how or what to pray, it doesn’t matter. He does our praying in and for us, making prayer out of our wordless sighs, our aching groans” (Rom. 8:26, MSG).
This truth can keep us going as we navigate the difficult, unknown terrain of aging. The Holy Spirit is not only guiding us but also praying for us. The Spirit is hovering over us. And as we move forward into uncharted land, God is creating something new.
Image: Unsplash/Katarzyna Grabowska