“I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you” (Philippians 1:3). Today’s scripture comes from Paul’s letter to the Philippians and this is how the letter begins: I thank God for each one of you.
Now of course, Paul was writing to give advice to the early Christians. That’s what he did; that’s why we have snippets of his instruction all pieced together in the New Testament. But more than giving advice, Paul misses the church at Philippi. He knows these people, and loves them, and misses them. Here Paul is writing to them from prison. “For God is my witness,” he tells them, “how I long for all of you with the compassion of Christ Jesus” (Philippians 1:8).
In case you happen to believe that the walls of this prison and the imperial guard of Rome are incapable of stopping words of hope from getting out, well, Paul proves you right. (Words of hope can slip into and out of prison with surprising stealth.) In case you might be thinking, wait a minute, Paul is the one locked up, and he is the one encouraging the church, shouldn’t it be the other way around? Yes. You’d be right about that too.
Today at Church of Peace, we’re continuing our series on the stages of life and we have reached oldest adult. Now we do not know how old Paul was when he wrote this letter. We do know he was experiencing a closeness to death. Right out loud in the letter, in front of the whole church, Paul wonders whether it would be better for him to die or go on living.
He writes, “I am hard pressed between the two; my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better; but to remain in the flesh is more necessary for you.” He continues, “Since I am convinced of this, I know I will remain and continue with all of you for your progress and joy in faith.”
In this letter, Paul takes seriously his desire to die; in doing this, he takes seriously the cost of what it means for him to stay alive. Then Paul chooses to keep living —you know, for your sake, he tells the Philippians. But in making this choice, he’s teaching all of us that we could wrestle with life and death, that we could even come out alive. By the time we get to the scripture that Kevin read, you hear Paul’s strategy for not dying. Paul is tethering the story of his life with the story of Christ.
As though the Gospel is still going.
As though resurrection was not a one-time miracle, but resurrection is how we keep managing to come back to life, all of us, every day, how we keep on saving each other’s lives.
“I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead… I press on toward the goal of the heavenly prize of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3 10-11, 14). I thank God the church decided to listen to this man who was locked up.
If you’ve come to Church of Peace before, you might know, something I talk about often is my concern for people who are incarcerated One problem with our criminal justice system is that it’s too easy for us on the outside to live our lives, and go through our days, and not even think about people in jail and prison. If you know someone who’s locked up, that’s different. But if you don’t, we run the risk of forgetting these people. There is terrible truth in saying, “out of sight, out of mind.” People who are locked up can be unseen and go unlistened to.
And while it is the case that people who are locked up and very old people might not have everything in common, both groups share this much. Very old people might also know what it is to be invisible in our world. It is rare to see the oldest people represented on TV shows or modeling apparel. While some lawmakers and justices are among the oldest of people, we don’t frequently hear from the oldest adults in the public sphere.
Like our sisters and brothers who are incarcerated, the oldest adults run the risk of having their stories go unheard. And we run the risk of not listening. You’ve heard the question: If a tree falls down in the forest and no one’s around to hear it, does it make a sound? If an old person has the story of her life to share, but nobody’s around to hear it, does it even matter…
I recently came upon an observation by David Augsburger. He said this, “Being heard is so close to being loved that for the average person, they are almost indistinguishable.” Being heard is so close to being loved that for the average person, they are almost indistinguishable.
Before you were ever born, God whispered I love you and began forming you inside your mother’s womb. It happened to all of us, to every person who ever existed. We all have been fearfully and wonderfully breathed into life. Deep in the dark, I love you was whispered and imprinted on our souls. Now every I love you we ever hear makes us all the more real.
We keep getting loved into being, all of us, but that doesn’t mean we can hear it all the time, and it definitely doesn’t mean we believe it. It is entirely possible for a person to go through one day after another believing he is unloved and unlovable. You don’t have to be locked up or old to doubt your own belovedness, and I’m in the business of trying to find the right words to convince you otherwise, then along comes this insight:
Imagine if hearing a person could remind her of God’s I love you. Imagine if the church made it our business to remember the people who are forgotten, to see the people who feel invisible, to hear the people who are very old.
It is holy work to listen to the stories the oldest people tell. When I’ve tried this, something I notice is that it’s common for the storytelling of the oldest people to take a meandering approach. Sometimes they just talk. They might tell you about a horse they had in their childhood or the hill where they’d always go sledding with their cousins.
More often then not, their ruminating releases a certain significant event from long ago; it may have been traumatic; it definitely changed their life. Something that happened in the war. The experience of being assaulted as a child. The baby who didn’t live. Then, it’s not uncommon for the person to keep talking, letting one thing remind him of another until we’re back to something mercifully mundane —oh when I looked out the window this morning I saw a goldfinch.
By listening to this bubbling stream of consciousness, you are helping an old person sift and sort the pieces of their life —the beautiful stories that wash up next to the most horrible day next to the most random hilarious revelations all mixed up together until you sit. And hear them. And start to hear the shape and meaning of this person’s life. Now you are helping this old person by listening to her life, and if that’s all this did, it would be enough, but there is something more.
By listening to the oldest people tell their own stories and remember their own lives, what they’re teaching us is how to do this ourselves. Hearing their stories exposes our own. Next we’ll see, it’s not just that they’re teaching us how to make sense of our lives, what’s happening is they’re teaching us how to live. The oldest people teach us that trauma can stay with you your whole life. And it can be survivable. You will be shocked by your own resilience.
In looking at the splendid mosaic pieces of a whole life, old people teach us that nobody is the worst thing they have ever done. Nobody is worst thing that has ever happened to them. Nobody is the best thing they have ever done, or the best thing that’s happened to them. There keeps being more to the story.
It’s counterintuitive, I know. Listening to one person tell her own story inadvertently reveals life is not all about her. Instead her story brings out your story, and your story is connected to all these other stories. Nobody’s life is just about them. Listening illuminates all the ways we’re connected, and if that’s all it did, that would be enough, but there is something more.
Listen to somebody for more than a minute and you will hear their story of coming back to life. Our lives are made out of resurrection activity! Listen to somebody for more than a minute, you’ll hear how it happened to them. There’s no way to do this and not consider the times when you could have died, when your own life was at risk of getting lost, when it all could have fallen apart if it weren’t for…
This is the hope of God. When we hear our own story of coming back to life, we begin to hear how our life stories are tethered to the story of Christ.
As though the Gospel is still going, still pressing on toward the goal.
As though the first I love you keeps moving the universe toward life and more life. We just have to hear it; we just have to hear each other.
If a man locked in prison writes a letter about coming back to life, and no one’s around to get it, does it even matter. Instead, what if the church reads that letter and keeps reading that letter for generations…
If an old person tells the truth of his life, and the church is there to hear it, could it even change the world… Oh yes. We know it does.