There is a time in our lives when the future holds so much promise and mystery that the thought of an end to life is merely something to consider on a rainy day. I refer to the beautiful season of life that bridges childhood and adulthood.
Now that I have reached midlife, I sometimes reflect upon those "good old days" of young adulthood, when friendship and emotional connections were ultimate, when older people believed in us, and when what was yet to come in our lives was paramount in our minds.
Helen Cunningham was my favorite grade school teacher. She commuted from a nearby city to a classroom of fifth-grade students in the country village where our family lived. A premature passion had taken hold of me in the form of political ambition, and she had me believing I could one day become President of the United States. In the recesses of my childish imagination, I mapped out a future filled with excitement, influence, and idealism. But fifth grade came and went, and eventually I found myself on the other side, where the years behind me are likely more numerous than the years I have left to live.
As hard as we try—by looking over old photos or trying to find long-lost friends, for instance—a stubborn reality sets in at midlife, and we must reckon with the end of certain hopes and dreams. Those friends we look up will never again be friends as they once were. The achievements that had been so central in our lives have long been replaced by a daily routine and by decades of faithfulness to more achievable goals.
At midlife—a season in which the anchor of our lives has long held secure— it becomes clearer yet that we still need God. A comforting message woven through the Bible is this promise from God: "I will be with you." A transformation needs to take place, in midlife and beyond, that involves reigniting passion about living with purpose, and at this stage it should also include passion for the life remaining. Call it a conversion of sorts—or a resurrection.
The challenge of midlife malaise is a large concern. I have observed some midlife folks who appear uninterested in dreaming. They have great potential to make a difference, but they seem to see the glass of life as more than half empty. I want to say to them, "Quit living as if you are confined to a nursing home. Get up, get out, and make a difference in someone’s life. Rise up out of that tomb of apathy." Even something as simple as volunteering at a soup kitchen can make a big difference. Or fostering and adopting a child. Or being a mentor to a young person who may grow up to be what you wanted to be. None of these things will happen, though, without a resurrection of vision and purpose for the second half of life.
Jesus touched on this cycle of gaining and losing momentum. He began his ministry with idealism about the coming Kingdom of God. His disciples knew something great would happen as long as Jesus was around. Then everything changed when he died, and the disciples went back to life as they knew it before they had met Jesus. It was like death to a wonderful dream and to that talk about sitting next to Jesus in his kingdom. So, get out the fishing nets.
But just when all traces of mystery and hope seemed gone, Jesus reawakened the hearts of his disciples and told them he would be with them even though he would not be physically present. Jesus told them to wait for a promise. The second stage of their journey, though it lacked his newness and personal presence, was about to become even more profound than the first stage.
Many middle-aged people and seniors need to hear the voice of Jesus say to them, "I will be with you." It is one thing to know Jesus is with us in a personal way but quite another to believe he is with us in a purposeful way. The strength of youth may be diminished; a fading memory of unfulfilled dreams, but rather than bemoaning that certain goals will never materialize, those who are middle-aged and older should anticipate a newly revised vision for their lives.
There is a largely untapped mine of wisdom and energy in the over-50 age group in our churches. Rather than retiring to a warm climate and waiting for the inevitable, older people are finding a new lease on life involving service to their churches and communities. We are looking to a time in the next 20 years or so in our religious congregations when there will likely be fewer young people and more people over 50. With all our emphasis on youth programs, we also need an increased emphasis on engaging older members to become more involved. The dawn of youthful idealism and energy is desirable, but we also need the dusk of the reflective and refined experience of older seekers.
A couple in a former congregation of mine are now both retired, but they are two of the most valuable participants. She served as an elder. He washes pots and pans in the kitchen, serves during community meals, and is there to help in other ways. She maintains the bulletin board, and both sit toward the front during worship services, which encouraged me as their pastor. They appear to have a clear purpose in life, and their lives give the impression of being more about beginnings than endings. So instead of getting out the rocking chairs, they live as resurrection people—with a purpose for the second half (or a bit shorter) of their lives.
Another senior woman in that congregation works a part-time job with a purpose. For decades, she had served as a missionary in Africa, and these days she works so she can send money to help educate and benefit her "family" overseas. An inner voice of love tells her she still has a calling. Sadly, too many have lost that sense of calling, even those much younger than she is.
I heard of an older man who confessed, "I know I will never become President of the United States, but now I realize I won’t be president of anything." This man reached a crossroads where, if he chose, he could easily close the book on his dreams. He could just wait for the end to arrive. What he needs is for someone to come along and say to him, "Sure, you didn’t become President. Most of us don’t. But what about becoming president of your block club or a local service organization? What about aiming more toward what others need for you to be for them than focusing on the void left by not attaining what you thought you always wanted for yourself?"
What he needs even more than others’ advice is to hear the Inner Voice calling him out of his sense of worthlessness and igniting the spark of a new calling in his soul.
Regret can have a paralyzing effect in our lives if we are not careful. Something that can replace regret—and is even more powerful—is the resurrection of a God-given purpose for the second half of our lives. Even when early dreams have died, our hearts can be awakened to hear Jesus say, "I will be with you. . . . You will be my witnesses."
This article also appeared in a slightly different form in the September 15, 2009, issue of The Mennonite.