Ask Not

Ask not what your church can do for you, ask what you can do for your church.

With apologies to President Kennedy and to members of congregations who have for years given their all to shore up their church in creative ways, I would like to come to grips with the reality of the human nature behind of Kennedy’s words.

Our churches often point with pride to their outreach to those in need, whether across the street or across the globe.  How many of you are members of congregations that identify front and center your good works in supporting missions in Asia or Africa?  How many of you are members of churches that proudly identify efforts by clergy and laity alike to keep in touch with the less able, the shut-ins and the bereaved?  How many of you are members of churches that repeatedly identify the blessing we all receive as gifts from our God?   

I hope that most of you answered, “I am.” to those questions.  These actions are important to the missions and purposes of our churches and as such should be “practiced” and publicly noticed and appreciated.   The focus in our newsletters, bulletin boards and “Temple Talks” about the things we do as a church not only define our church, but they identify ways to think about a Godly life for each of us.  The practices noticed in our church can become the identity practiced by members of a congregation. 

But we all know, because we have been there, that as much as we appreciate a helping hand with food when we are incapacitated, or words of compassion when we are troubled, or directions along a pathway when we are confused, that we would never choose to live our life in such a “receiving” mode.  We, all of us, need to also feel that we are reasonably capable of giving help, finding solutions to problems, and being in reasonable control of our own lives in the company of people we like and appreciate.  This is as true for older adults as it is for the middle-aged adults as it is for the youth.

So how does a church go about including success in empowering people for the “I am competent” half of the human equation.   Where are the headlines in the bulletin and newsletters proudly touting instances in which congregation has created opportunities for those who receive the churches support to become our teachers in ways we would never have expected?  Where are the “Temple Talks” lauding the older adults in the church who gathered the youth to ask the young for ideas for making life better for all?  Where are the well-publicized discussions of clergy and laity alike asking the less active members of the congregation for help in thinking about and acting on creative ways for fostering new ways to improve life for members of the communities in which they live?

I write these words as an older adult who, though feeling a bit less energy or capability to do what I’d like to do with each passing year, still do not like being given a default identity as the kind of person the church needs to help.  

The solutions lie in considerations of new, creative ways all members of the church, including my older age-mates can be noticed publicly as we contribute in ways that we are able to improve the well-being of our church, our community, our country and our world.  I’d like us to be known not just as a part of the problem but also as a necessary part of the solution.  It would do wonders for our health and well-being and could support our churches in their efforts to help create a better world.


In Praise of Acquaintances

The other day after a Sunday church service, one of the members of the congregation came up to me and said that he had signed up for the course on Gratitude and Beliefs that my colleague and I are teaching this fall in the Cannon Valley Elder Collegium.  I know this person and like him.  When we meet at church we usually make eye contact, nod and smile, and perhaps say “Hello” or “How’s it going?”   If there is something significant going on, like a snowstorm, or a big game, or a forthcoming program at church on mental illness, we might comment even more.  If we bumped into each other downtown or in a store, we would typically follow the same pattern of greeting.  Should we happen to sit next to each other during an informal church gathering, our understandings of each other’s interests and experiences would surely increase a bit.

I feel good during those brief meetings in the hall, whatever form they take.  I’d be hard pressed to say that our greetings make my entire day, but they make me feel cheerful at the moment and they remind me that I’m not invisible, and that I am recognized by a person who I know and appreciate – that I matter to someone. 

If asked, I’d say that this person was an acquaintance.  He is certainly not a stranger, nor is he one of my more intimate close friends. 

Such face-to-face encounters with “acquaintances” in my church give me feelings of “belonging” – a connection that affirms to me that who I am – a person welcomed by others.   It makes me feel at home; connected to my community.  When I sit in church with acquaintances on all sides, and we join together in prayer, liturgy, song and communion, it makes me feel comfortable and content –- I suppose it is a form of gratitude for my faith and those with whom I journey.

To praise interactions with acquaintances in church is not to degrade the importance of close personal friendships that also may be reinforced in church hallways.  But a growing appreciation for the role of acquaintances in our health has fostered a new exploration of the contexts in daily life that support our well-being.  In this case, the advantages of attending church are front and center in their fit.  

A generation ago, psychology made an important shift from research that explored recovery from emotional difficulties to also exploring benefits from enhancing the positive events in daily life.  The research from this positive psychology has increased our awareness of the roots of resilience – an especially important perspective for older adults!   But until recently, the source of positive emotions that enhanced well-being and resilience was seen as lying primarily with close relationships with family and good friends.  But recently, psychology has also begun to explore the importance of increasing the number of one’s acquaintances and the frequency of interactions with them, as influential means of enhancing our well-being and resilience.

In a nutshell, here are some emerging components from acquaintance research:
Both the number of acquaintances we know and the frequency of our pleasant interaction (even minimally) with them will affect our immediate happiness and sense of well-being and “belongingness” (in an organization, like a church).  These are all powerful cognitive and emotional signals to us that life is good;  and such feelings clearly affect our physical and emotional health and our sense of resilience.

What fertile understandings these are for knowing how our churches serve as important sources of spiritual, physical and emotional health in the lives of our parishioners.


MemoryKeepers,  Attentional-Pie  

and Our Disappearing Church

 The organizations with which we align ourselves affect our thoughts about ourselves and others, our emotions, and our actions.  This can be true for the sports team we support, the business we work for, and the church we attend.   Our allegiances affect our identity, and our identity affects what we think, feel and do.   We grow to have cyclical relationships among our identity, the other people in our lives and our “organizations” (groups).

Most of us can recognize the truth of such a cyclical relationship, at least for the formative events that added to our sense of who we are as a person.   What seems to be harder to understand is the important role that our accessible memory of “formative events” plays in our current identity.  It is not an accident that weekly sermons at church cover, more or less, the same ground covered last year at this time.  The continuing reminder of the Word of God is a key part of the awareness and strength our own religious beliefs.

What we pay attention to is like a pie – an attentional-pie.  The more we focus on some aspects of our life, the less attention we have remaining to focus on other elements of our life experiences -- that could have “come to mind”.  Thus, as we consider our personal characteristics that affirm to us who we are (our identity) what comes to mind is necessarily a limited number of the possibilities of current events and events from our history.

Thus, our mind’s attentional-pie determines in many ways, what will come to mind as we think about who we are as a person. The role of memory for the stability of knowing our own identity came to me in an unusual way recently.  It began with a conversation with a friend who has Alzheimer’s Disease;  I’m going to call him Roger.

Roger was able to express to me that as he has a conversation, he feels a sense of enjoyment and appreciation.  He said those conversations bring him “happiness” of some sort.  For instance, I have recently had excellent conversations with Roger about his youth in Alaska and about the reasons he has chosen to open himself for challenging opportunities and new directions throughout his life.  He does seem to realize that in ten minutes he will have completely forgotten our conversation about his experiences. 

For most of us, a recall of our experiences is what keeps us on a reasonably steady life journey.  An ability to remember our experiences can be what gives us an identity (a sense of who we are) because we can “see”, in retrospect, our consistencies of thought, action and feelings.  This is an invisible, but extremely important psychological process.

Roger explained that he is OK with only momentary sources of “happiness”.  In some way he seems to recognize that something is missing.  I can certainly understand how hard it is for any of us to “see” something that isn’t there – although beliefs of all sort play a real-life role here.

Then, as Roger and his wife, and my wife and I were having dinner, Roger’s wife shared a brief story.  She and Roger were walking through their nearby river-side park recently.  They passed near the park gardener.  Roger noticed the well trimmed hedges and said to the gardener, “Thank you for trimming the hedges.  They look nice.”  His wife said that the gardener stopped what he was doing, looked at us in amazement and said in return, “Nobody ever stops to tell me things like that about my work.  Thank you.  It makes a big difference.”

The look on Roger’s face as his wife was telling this story (his story) was one of smiling intensity.  Clearly he appreciated this powerful story being told about himself – something his failing memory would never have enabled him to do.   It seems that listening to somebody else telling about the good things in life that he did (and was doing) was the way that he now had to learn about his own identity – in this case, that of a being a good person who made other people feel good.

Being a good person is truly consistent with his identity as I knew it over the years.  But he truly had no way to remember and understand that, without hearing a story about himself told by somebody else.  Roger’s wife was, for him, his MemoryKeeper.   

The same dynamics are true, it seems to me, for the identity and values we have incorporated over the years that have come from the organizations and the people in those organizations with which we have been aligned -- such as our church.  The problem does not usually come from our lack of ability to remember things, like it is for Roger.  Our lack of remembering what our organization stood for last year or twenty years ago that affected our sense of who we were, is more likely because our current attentional-pie now only brings to mind recent events or only a few of the meaningful events from past years.  The breadth of events and values that were embodied in our church that truly influenced us in the past, are simply not likely to be recalled and thus considered.  This is a serious handicap because it can narrow our perception of our contemporary identity – who we are today.

Furthermore, who we think we are today, can be projected back on our perception of what our church has become as well.  For example, to the extent that we older adults think of ourselves as less capable and resilient, we may see our church as less capable and resilient as well and vice-versa.  (To the extent that we really care about our church, our understanding of our identity and the identity we perceive our church to have can be quite reciprocal.)

Importantly, these issues must be considered in any conversations about how to address our “disappearing church”.

We are, in reality, all MemoryKeepers of our own church.  The fact that we differ in what we recall about the meaning our church to us over the years is perhaps the most significant resource available to a congregation.

As members of a church congregation share their diverse stories (from yesterday and last year and 20 years ago) the reality of a complex, living (and changing) church becomes clearer.   When we combine our memories, hidden strengths and sources of resilience will emerge that never would have been recalled and considered with a more traditional, hierarchical approach.  These newly recalled resources can enable a church to consider a host of creative ways to find resilience in the face of change.

Note:  As the writer of this blog, I find myself becoming very emotional as I write the words of the last three paragraphs.  The reality of what I write is so clear, and yet the approach is hardly ever discussed, let alone tried (as far as I know), that I weep as “disappearing” increasingly becomes an identity of far too many of our churches – and an identity of far too many congregation members as well!


Church as Source of Well-Being 

Churches can be places where people come together and form relationships that are a primary source of their health and well-being.  People show up at their church for lots of reasons.  A primary motive would seem to be to hear and affirm the word of God and to share in that effort with others who (they suppose) are also believers. 

But there is apparently only modest understanding of the potential personal/social benefits of people’s time spent in church and engaging in church activities and programs that bring them together.  In fact churches’ person-to-person social relationship features are often dismissed as irrelevant.  Nothing could be further from the truth. 

People can establish a personal relationship with God that enables them to feel positive outcomes (importantly, I think that the more that a person feels they are contributing to God’s purpose in that relationship, the more powerful a force for good it can become).  However, we know enough about human behavior to know that one’s relationship with God does not represent unusual human behavior. In fact social relationships of all kinds, including those with God, are the essence of being human.  In one of the most detailed and extensive studies of human well-being in natural settings over time, Professor George Vaillant concluded, “The only thing that really matters in life are your relationships….”

Somehow the leaders of the church have to come to grips with this powerful force for good that can emerge in places of worship.  If we don’t notice and understand the broad “what and how” potential of our churches to affect positively the well-being of parishioners, then we are unlikely to seek ways to enhance it.

Our huge mega-churches can offer examples of how to go about offering diverse opportunities for parishioner engagement in church-facilitated activities and programs (-- as well as how to introduce attractive motivations for people to show up at church during the weekly service).  

The trouble with learning from what have been the mega-church successes in recent years is that it is all to easy to assume that the reason for their success are either (1) their size, or (2) the charismatic nature of the senior pastor.   Yes, many people seem more eager to come to a church that they perceive is where “everybody” else wants to attend, and yes, people like to hear uplifting sermons that give them a sense of receiving an emotional gift. 

But so often it is the mega-church’s flexible places and times of service that fit the lives of parishioners, the small group formats that can serve as potential sources of enjoyable social communion, the varied activities that address the interests of diverse members of that congregation, and the creation of gatherings among those with special-needs and unique-interests -- that keep people coming back and serve as opportunities for enhancing health and well-being of all who come.

It is the creation of settings that empower people to find enjoyment, relief, challenge and a sense of belonging that supported my own purpose in beginning this Aging and the Church blog two years ago.  During this time, I have begun to see more clearly that the issue is one of an adaptation of the visions of church leaders at all levels -- from bishops to church councils -- to notice and understand the potential of broadened perspectives on the powerful forces for good that lie within a more open understanding of God’s purposes for His churches.


Believing is Seeing

Our beliefs are a way we “see”.  What we believe and then see become our reality.  Our experts in this believing and seeing business are those who know it because they have experienced it.  

For we novice believers, advice from experts can be confusing.   For example, those who are to us, experts, may talk about the reality of God and His presence in their life.  Yet we may look behind the same bushes, or read the same lectionaries, or hear the same words, yet we may not see anything out of the ordinary. 

I’d like to address this issue from the perspectives of perception, cognition and emotions, although research in neuroscience generally supports and enhances the psychological approaches.

When we truly believe something (when we expect it to be true), not only are we likely to see in our mind what we may not have quite seen with our eyes, but our body will respond in ways that suggest that indeed we did experience it in “real life”. 

The easiest way to understand a common experience for most of us might be to recall a time, perhaps during a dark and stormy night in a location that was unfamiliar to us.  If we hear an unexplainable, ominous noise not too far from our position, we may believe/expect that
it is from a threatening person or animal,
thus our body may shiver with fear or anxiety.  Clearly our mind, our emotions, and our body are all responding to our momentary expectations, believing that a dangerous situation lies just beyond our position (which, hopefully in this example, turned out not to be true). 

If we are walking in a seemingly dried up grass field on a hot day in June, we may not see “beauty”, but if we believe (expect) that
there is truly beauty hidden in the grass if we just look for it,
we may take action and look for it – and perhaps find a small deeply-lobed plant with pink flowers that look like snowflakes growing in the shade of a nearby plant.  A gift of nature that unless we expected to see it, we might not even have bothered to look for it.

If we believe (expect) that if we express gratitude to a clerk at the local grocery store for his thoughtful kindness toward us,
           he will feel good about himself, and therefore we will feel better about ourselves for 
           having “caused” the clerk’s increase in well-being,
then we are more likely to take action and express gratitude to the clerk, and to increase our own sense of well-being in the process.

If we believe (expect) that as we pray to God for healing from our disturbing illness,
that we will feel better
it is more likely that indeed we will feel better (God will have answered our prayers). To believe in God is a perspective that transforms the ways available to give us healing and energy -- it connects us to our own future.  Furthermore, to celebrate in church with others that our belief in God can bring positive outcomes, is a way that helps us all to overcome life’s difficulties.

Incidentally, from psychological research we know that the power of our beliefs (our expectations) to right the wrongs in our life, for instance, is increased if we are feeling down, or confused, or upset, or fearful.  What a wonderful gift; at the very time that we need help the most, our belief that God will answer our prayers may benefit us the most.


In Praise of Tinkering

Tinker is a good word.  As a kid I used to tinker a lot.  I’d tinker with my Lincoln Logs and my Erector Set;  I’d build something or other and if it didn’t turn out right I’d change the design or start over, no biggie.  The purpose of tinkering was not to be “The best there ever was.”, as baseball player Roy Hobbs wanted to be known in The Natural.  When we kids would find a vacant field to play a little ball during those nice summer days, we really were tinkering;  muffing a fairly easy fly ball, striking out, throwing wide of third base and allowing a run to score, no biggie.  Sure, there were times not to tinker, like on a math test, or in a chemistry lab.  But everybody seemed to know the difference

Even when the situation called for doing something important for others, there were times when tinkering was the best approach.  At boy scout camp in the Sierras, for instance, tinkering was often the way things worked – the way we learned stuff.  If the beans cooked by a couple of the boys didn’t turn out so well, we ate more of the potatoes and peas that meal, and those kids did it differently next week when they were the cooks again.  If the raft that my Rattlesnake Patrol put together didn’t hold up as well as the raft made by the guys in the Cobra Patrol, then we tried to find out what they did, so we could do it differently next time.  If we were on a hike and the pack became too heavy for one kid, then other kids took turns helping carry his pack, no biggie. 

Yes at scout camp we had The Boy Scout Manual that guided us in a general sort of way.  But we scouts differed from each other in age, interests, character, family stability and responsibilities, so there was never one right answer to anything.  We had to notice and be open to our new experiences as well as that of others.  We had to be comfortable in being wrong some of the time.  In a learning culture like scout camp, tinkering was everyplace; the important thing was to share what worked and what didn’t.  Working with each other and trying to think creatively seemed to be the way things came out OK over time.

Now that I am grown up and then some, I no longer see tinkering held in such high regard; certainly not in athletic play.    Even computer and SmartPhone games are really tests to see how quickly we players can get to the “right place” that some 20-something programmer living in San Francisco decided was the “right place” for everybody.   Most of our digital games have become teachers of “absolutes” – more like a math class than a scout camp. 

What does all of this have to do with older adults and the church?   I suggest a whole lot.   To the extent that we think that the right answer for church is, say 300 (If we had 300 members we would be doing just great.), or 84 (If I still show up at church when I am 84 I will have had a wonderful life.), or 200 for 20,000 (If every member gave an extra $200, then we could reach our goal of $20,000 for a new bell tower.), then our churches too have become more like math classes than my scout camp.

But aren’t our churches really to help us learn from each other how to find faith, love and to treat our neighbors as ourselves?  Yes, we can learn the general principles from The Bible, but in practice, our diversity of age, interests, character, income, and responsibilities suggests that it takes working with others and creativity to make it all work.  We older adult church members need to notice and be open to our new experiences and be comfortable in being wrong some of the time.   We need to encourage multiple creative approaches and the sharing of what we find works – or doesn’t work.  Listening with respect to each other and trying to think creatively about the issues before us will be the way things come out OK over time.

This, it seems to me, argues for a culture of tinkering in our churches.


   A Mystery of Life and our Belief in God

I’m a city person, and have been for most of my life, but in my youth I worked several years as a summer cowboy on a very large cattle ranch in Wyoming.   Two years ago my family and I revisited Wyoming.  I especially remember walking around the corrals during a Wyoming Ranch Rodeo in which a few of my relatives were riding. 

As I walked through the sagebrush, I found myself expecting my heels to hit the ground before they actually did – it was as if my body thought I was wearing my cowboy boots rather than my loafers.  I found myself reaching my hand up to grab the crown of my hat, in the way one does when wearing a cowboy hat, not the baseball cap I was wearing.  I found myself being alert to different sounds as I walked.  I’m not sure what I was listening for, a rattlesnake perhaps, or a changing wind – I don’t know.  I was just aware of feeling very different. 

My mind and body were transported back in time.  This reemergence of those particular habits-of-my-body and feelings-in-my-mind, were exceptionally surprising to me.  It was a mysterious experience that co-existed with the reality of also being a person who has not been around ranch life for decades.

I tell this story because I was able to identify some specific behaviors and broad feelings that accompanied this revisit to a place.  The next story, a recent revisit to a former church, was also a mysterious experience of feeling simultaneous differences and similarities in my travel backward in time.

The church, St. James Lutheran, is a prominent urban church in downtown Portland, Oregon.  It is where my wife, Jan, and I spent many partial years as we took a sabbatical in Portland, spent some time during summers there, and for a few years after I retired spent about 6 months a year.  It was a congregation in which the homeless, gay/lesbians and visitors of all stripes were always welcome, and in visible weekly attendance

A week ago, when my wife and I walked through the massive front door of historic St. James for the first time in almost 10 years, both my wife and I felt overwhelmed with emotion.  Jan felt at home, and had a powerful sense of comfort and happiness.   In contrast I felt nostalgic and somewhat gloomy.  In my head I could see the pews were good friends used to sit – now empty.   The toll of death and illness among friends has a tragic reach across time as one reenters formerly common space. 

Recalling the impact of my recent revisit to the ranch territory of my youth, I wondered what other ways this reentry into this church was having on me?   The high church traditions were still in place – even more so.  The flow of the people, some still remembered, was familiar.  The liturgy too was familiar – identical with my home church Lutheran congregation in Northfield, actually.   Yet here I was, mysteriously affected by what was in relation to what is.  

Perhaps to be mysteriously transported back in time, on occasion, so that our mind and our body are in two places at the same time, is a special gift allowing us a personal, small glimpse at how the magnificent mystery of a belief in God works in us all.


Church Congregations and Professional Silos
-- Nothing ultimately worthwhile will happen unless we start with understanding 
the reality of each other’s life. --

In the room were eight professional mental-health care workers laying out the extraordinarily disturbing situation in our country of huge gaps in needed mental-health care professionals.  And then there was me;  I introduced myself as a member of a local Lutheran church that recently had a Sunday adult forum on mental illness.  I mentioned that it was one of the best attended forums in quite a time;  the point being that there is considerable interest in our churches for information (and presumably, action) about this unfortunately all-to-private family health issue.

The conversation among the eight went on for an hour and a half with thoughtful comments about the need to encourage more talented students to go into mental health specialties, the need for more funding for mental health services and the critical mental health needs for any kind of mental health assistance in rural areas.  After my first introduction of why I was there, I did not speak again.  During the next hour and a half, there was no mention of churches as a stage for addressing mental health needs, no mention of prevention (what I now call resilience) programs to address at least some mental-health issues before they become a crises, and certainly no mention of “lay” church members as originators of creative ways to help address the mental health needs of their friends and neighbors.

I’m afraid that what I observed that day around that table is what happens all too often – a kind of a professional “silo” approach for addressing problems that surround those of us who sit in the pews week after week.  The professionals who were at that table with me were thoughtful, competent, kind, and realistic.   They brought with them the skills they knew. 

I mention this true experience in light of my focus on aging and the church, because it is what often seems to happen as we address issues that obstruct a community – like a church, by first calling on professionals.  Clinical professionals are generally educated to help individuals.  So when a community, made up of diverse, unique individuals who struggle with their lives, there are few road maps for how to pull together diverse professional “silos” in equal, shared leadership with those of us who are in the midst of our difficulties.  To the extent that we congregation members put our hopes on a professional in our midst to solve our community-wide problem, I fear we will continue to be disappointed in the outcome.

[The exception, of course, is when our churches face financial challenges.  There are legions of organizations eager for our business as they put powerful social psychological science into action in order to glean yet larger contributions from us all.]

If our mainline churches are disappearing, if our older adults are invisible except when they have cancer, if our church culture suggests that we keep secret our family mental health problems, who do we call first to fix things; an expert with the biggest hammer perhaps?   

Frankly, it is up to us and our family members, friends, neighbors and acquaintances who sit with us in the pews, to begin by gathering together experts from several disciplines, to talk openly, face-to-face with us about what is on our mind, and to emphasize one thing at first – listening with acceptance and respect to what each of us has to say.  

Follow-up conversations can deal with the action steps – but nothing ultimately worthwhile will happen unless we start with understanding the reality of each other’s life.


PS  I know that I have left out of this discussion the role of Pastors in addressing congregation-wide problems like diminishing membership, agonizing mental health issues, and the changing nature of older adult’s health.   Pastors, it seems to me, can have a huge impact for good, but so often they must spend their waking hours addressing other, immediate congregational and religious issues.   That’s why I make a plea for congregation members to grab the reins of empowering leadership -- in concert with the purposes of your church and in a complimentary journey with your pastor.  Together we can make it happen.

  God and Science:  A Complimentary Team

My wife has been convening a cancer mutual help group for women at our church.  Even though there is a fine cancer support group at our local hospital, my wife felt that conversations about important issues would be strengthened when held where we worship.  She said she felt more comfortable, more at home, and more inclusive of God when the discussions were at our church.  

Scientific research certainly agrees with my wife.  Place matters.  A sense of place can have a powerful impact on people.  Positive emotions, such as comfort, calmness, closeness or even feelings of control, can be enhanced when entering meaningful (to us) places such as our own living room or the pews toward the back on the left side of our church (where we always sit), for example.   

And when we are feeling positive emotions in our daily life, we are healthier, have a better sense of well-being, we are more open to what is actually going on around us, more thoughtful and creative in our decisions, and more appreciative of alternative perspectives.  In the long run, the more (to a limit) positive emotions in our daily life the better our health and well-being.

But recently a friend, a very capable women with a strong faith, said that what is important to her are the  words of the Bible  -- that’s all she needs.  Being at church for discussions about her cancer, for instance, is not important.  She could as well be in one place as in another – they are all the same. 

Because of my respect for this woman, her rejection of what is an important part of my own experience is a significant challenge.  Unhelpfully, one of my first impulses was to be dismissive of my friend’s comments -- to think that she just doesn’t understand.  My second was to think that well, OK so we disagree, no big deal.  But my third thought was to say to myself that this is a big deal;  I can learn something important.

My friend’s beliefs in her understandings of the words of the Bible are certainly true for her.  To the extent that she can live her life faithfully in accord with her beliefs, I suspect that goodness and mercy will continue to fill her days.   

But what of the Christians who find themselves influenced, for instance, by the power of a place, such as the feelings that come from being at home in one’s church.  Will their choices be encouraged by those who believe that place (or science) does not matter because decisions should be guided only by one’s chosen words from the Bible?

What seems to be going on is that our perspectives, whether from our beliefs that grow from the words of the Bible, or our beliefs that emerge from the halls of science or from our life experiences, serve as compasses for us, and guide our pathways and consequently our loyalties.

I am reminded of the change going on in medicine.  In our Western culture, traditional medicine has been dominant.  The practice of what has been called alternative medicine, such as faith/belief healing or meditation has been perceived in the past as a false-belief for the well-being of patients.  But research programs are now identifying some positive benefits from prayer, beliefs, mutual help groups, and friends, for instance.  Traditional medicine and belief approaches are becoming complimentary, not antagonistic.

Is it possible, for religion to adopt such complimentary perspectives -- that God’s word and the science of human belief, thoughts, emotions and behavior can be complimentary – strengthening each other? 

With such a complimentary world of faith, approaches that enhance the well-being of parishioners could begin with the wisdom of science as well as from the traditions of our Biblical faith.  These potentially complimentary approaches can travel the same pathways toward strengthening both a belief in God and the well-being of people.   God and science: A complimentary team.


I write a monthly reflection for my church’s newsletter.  In those articles, I am necessarily a good deal more personal/contextual than in my usual focus for this Aging and the Church blog.  I wrote a variation of this piece for a forthcoming issue of the Bethel Banner.   Bruce

The Music of Possibilities

The other day after church Noel Stratmoen and I were talking in Bethel’s narthex.  The conversation started with a sharing of our common appreciation for Bethel’s music.  But our conversation went further. 

We reflected how music can be an important part of what makes any of us feel good about ourselves.  To contribute in positive ways to the lives of others is our personal way of “doing good”, as well as “feeling good”.  For instance, as we sing hymns together in church, many people (most people?) surely feel that their voice is adding nicely to the whole.  Those folks are contributing their voice as a gift to the congregation and to God.  

In contrast, especially after my several throat surgeries several years ago, I suggested to Noel that my voice is different now.  I am not one that contributes in a positive way to the congregation’s gift of voices.  As a matter of fact, I find much more personal satisfaction by singing inwardly and letting the congregation and my mind carry the tunes -- not my damaged vocal cords.

The music of others, (and, in a way, the music in my mind) makes me happy.  It is one reason that I enjoy Bethel’s services.   But it is not, for me, a way in which I feel I contribute to my church.  My life is lesser because of it.   But that’s reality, and I’m OK with it.

Noel, a thoughtful guy, said he had not thought about that.  His response was typical for us all.  Something that some of us take for granted, like “all people enjoy singing”, can be an assumption that misses reality for some people.

As an older adult, I think a lot about the dilemma of making meaningful “contributions” at church as we age.  The issue plays out over time in other realms too, not just music;  from showing up for yard work or for helping out at the yearly church garage sale, for instance.  

As we older adults wisely make a choice to cut back on what we volunteer to do in ways that match our energy, we may not realize that we are also then curtailing the life-giving positive feelings that we receive when we contribute to the joy and well-being of others.
Older adult Bethel member, Bob Phelps was the first to enable me to see this dynamic in action.  Two of Bob’s gifts to our congregation were his wonderful interviewing and writing skills.  When he chose to “retire” from those contributions to our congregation, he said he knew that his life was going to be lesser in a way, but that’s reality, and he was OK with it.

So we older people make choices that affect our well-being.  For some of us anyway, we may not see a personally significant engagement alternative at church;  one that matches our current, changing circumstances.  And because of that, our life becomes a bit less meaningful.  But as a sign of hope, I recall a comment from Pastor Tim a year or so ago.  He said that as he watches people age he sees so many become engaged in activities and programs that they had not even considered earlier in their lives. 

So what is it that we older adults can create for ourselves and others at Bethel that -- to borrow a title from author, Irving Stone’s classic book, “Men to Match My Mountains  -- can enable us to say that Bethel is a really great place for “Older Adults to Match Their Possibilities”.