Limits of Life, Grace in Transitions

Q&A with Martin E. Marty and Peter W. Marty

by Susan Martins Miller

Both ordained Lutheran ministers, authors, and thinkers about religion and culture, Martin E. Marty and his son Peter W. Marty offered their reflections on faith and aging to Church Health Reader’s managing editor, Susan Martins Miller.

For many people, health and work are seasons that change in tandem during aging. What insights can you offer about navigating these intertwined changing circumstances?

Martin: A colleague taught me to ponder three difficult words which point to the limits of life and living, and which affect us more and more as we age. Most children aged seven do not stare death in the face. However, those aged 70 read the fact of death—finitude—behind the masks of retirement or self-chosen distractions. We will die. Second, chance is real and accidents happen. Contingency threatens every young person, but those in their eighties know that the psychic effects of fall or chronic disease will not let them go. And nothing lasts. How can older people evade transience, the realities of “the end,” as once they might have thought they could?

My colleague also stressed a simple word: daily. Martin Luther sneaked that into a biblical line: thanks to acts of grace, he wrote, “daily a new person is to rise up to live before God …  and “walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:4).

Culture, in its contemporary forms brings threats which only grow in aging people. Many senior citizens grow fearful as they increasingly lose their spirit of adventure or vision of many satisfying options. They cannot entirely escape finitude, contingency, and transience, but they can face these more readily if they deal with them in the light of each new “today.”

Aging is a multigenerational experience. One individual, or a set of parents, ages, but children and grandchildren are also affected by the changes. What were some of the first indicators that roles were shifting in your family as the decades pressed on?

Martin: The death, by cancer, of Elsa, my first wife in our fifties stands out as the most challenging reality for me. She was in her prime, looking forward happily and with hope. Illness struck. Many months of her facing reality, as she did, called for new awareness in our generations. She had borne four sons and we had fostered and taken into the family a daughter and a son, and we shifted much while adjusting. Finitude, contingency, and transience were vivid to us, just as they were incorporated into the consciousness of children as young as three.

Two years later, I married the widow of my college roommate and best friend, who had been taken by cancer when their daughter was one month old. She also did not need lessons in awareness of the three difficult enemies mentioned above, as she dealt with the aging and death of her parents.

It would be unfair and untrue to picture our years as weighted down by the need to cope with finitude, contingency, and transience. Second-wife Harriet could affirm our generational expressions, since she and Elsa had been friends. She was free to face the new todays which mark our philosophical and spiritual adventures. Of course, our agendas and roles shifted as we put energies into seeing our children mature and find generally rewarding careers and new ways of life, all of them marked, as we observe, with “newness” and creative “dailiness.”

Peter: There’s no question that roles shift between parents and children as parents age and children mature. Many people speak of a complete reversal of roles when it comes to care and support. This often holds true. What’s different between families is how these transitions take place. For some family systems these shifts in role are undertaken resentfully, awkwardly, and with deep resistance. In other family arrangements, they happen through healthy adjustment, broad acceptance, and graciousness.

In the “Dad department,” I lucked out. My father didn’t enter retirement as some do—lost in identity from having nothing to equal the vocational busyness or satisfaction of old. He walked into a whole new life as an adventure, essentially asking us offspring to help him navigate some of the unknowns. There is risk and vulnerability and patience required on everybody’s part in such an approach. Some of the players might make the adjustment more easily. But there’s something else required of everybody in this adventure. That something else is called grace.

Plenty of definitions exist for grace, depending on whom we ask at any given moment. But the one element that all definitions must share, if they’re to be true to the concept, is receptivity. The only way to know grace is to receive it with open arms. As we often learn the hard way, earning or deserving grace certainly doesn’t work.

Whenever we give, we’re in control. If I give you a compliment, a tip, some quick advice, or help with your luggage, I’m in control of the relationship at those moments, however subtly. Jesus was drawn to children because they are champion receivers. What other options do otherwise defenseless kids have? Early on in life, unfortunately, we shed our capacity to be good receivers. We go through our years struggling to graciously receive a wrapped gift or words of praise.

Only later in life do many people rediscover childhood all over again. That’s when a certain degree of dependency and—yes—the need to be a champion receiver returns. My dad is there. He’s more than made the discovery. And through his grace, he’s an example to me. 

What joys has aging brought that younger people might be surprised to hear about?

Martin: It might surprise some to read or hear about the way we are able to sustain relations with the various ages across the years and miles. We acquired a multiethnic family whose generations have brought into our orbit, through travel, marriage, and vocational choice, kids whose earliest childhoods were in Somalia, Trinidad, Mexico, or slums of Chicago. This produced experiences which might surprise those who are grim and pessimistic about multiculturalism. I like to think that being in regular contact as the younger generations mature has been reinforcing and surprising. Having adult friends of our own who offer friendship and a vast range of experience helps immensely.

How can people leverage faith to protect spiritual and emotional health, either as they age or as they care for a family member or friend whose life may be changing significantly because of aging?

Peter: I’m not sure faith’s best work happens by protecting one’s spiritual or emotional health so much as through inspiring or growing those different facets of life. For me, faith is what throws open the door enabling me to become more than I would otherwise be if left to my own devices. I like to think of faith as the continuous effort to trust my life to someone who’s more magnanimous, not to mention holier, than my own limited charm, wisdom, or lovability allow me to be.

What I find most exciting about seniors who are connected with faith communities is their curiosity and openness to fresh spiritual discovery. If it’s true that most of us spend the bulk of our adult lives growing our stature and intellect, not to mention our bodies and bank accounts—as I believe to be the case—we often neglect in equal measure a commitment to growing our faith. We walk through decades of life with a second-grade faith inhabiting our bodies, wondering why such spiritual immaturity feels insufficient when life’s crises strike. But along come the later years of life and something changes. Seniors who prize the beauty of grace begin to lose their felt need to be in control of all things. They shed their self-consciousness that dominated so many behaviors in their middle or earning years. They acquire a new thirst for God to give shape to their changed circumstances and new insight to their minds. It’s all quite lovely.

What might be some of the assets a congregation could bring to sharing the aging process with families?

Peter: Every congregation should aspire to embody the apostle Paul’s beautiful description of a Christ-centered community where there is mutual care. Basically, it’s the notion that if one person suffers, everybody suffers in some sense; and if one person has joy, everybody has a role in rejoicing. That’s not a complicated idea, but it takes leadership from some deep souls. And, it requires members to move beyond self-pity or self-absorption when it comes to their latest ailments.

If there are children in a congregation, hundreds of opportunities open up for pulling the generations together. A retired woman who was responsible for starting a preschool inside a nursing home complex just joined our congregation. She has the right idea for all of society. Derivatives from her dream ought to be a part of many congregations’ imagination. One day, our world might approach one like the prophet Zechariah dreamed of—older adults sitting on their porches watching boys and girls play happily in the street.

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