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Purpose in practices: Spiritual landscapes of older adults

We are always searching for answers about the meaning and purpose of our lives, and we seek to express those answers in how we live. We question what is truly important. We build relationships with others and with God, which we might value highly or just take for granted. The searching, expressing, questioning and relating are part of our spiritual self. As we grow older, our spiritual self changes along with our physical, mental and emotional selves.

The spiritual life that satisfied us when we were younger may no longer satisfy us as we grow older. Coming face to face with our own mortality often makes spiritual issues a much higher priority than ever before. We might have been comfortable with our being and having and doing, but our having and doing can change, sometimes quite dramatically, as we get older. Our spiritual quest must adapt to these changes by focusing more on our being than on our having and doing. Spiritual practices are important for navigating the changing spiritual landscape as we get older.

Participating in corporate worship is an important spiritual practice regardless of age. As the first question of the Westminster Catechism reminds us, our primary purpose is to glorify God and to enjoy God forever. The most important way that we glorify and enjoy God is through worship. We connect with God in worship as we celebrate God’s work in our world, offer prayers, hear God’s Word read and proclaimed, and offer something back to God in gratitude for our many blessings. During corporate worship we encounter the holy. Our Directory of Worship states, “Through Scripture, proclamation, and Sacraments, God in Christ is present by the Holy Spirit acting to transform, empower, and sustain human lives.” Participating in worship reminds us who we are and whose we are.

Older adults are especially vulnerable to doubting their worth when their bodies begin to fail, which may restrict their activities and increase their dependence on others. Participating in corporate worship helps remind them that their value depends on their being, not on their having and doing. Building and maintaining relationships with God and with each other is an important part of worship because God never intended for us to be alone. Our Trinitarian God’s very being is relational. In an outpouring of love, God created humanity in God’s own image and likeness, which includes being relational. In his book “Christian Worship,” Ron Byars says it well: “The New Testament has absolutely no knowledge of any sort of Christian faith that’s purely private, separated from the community of faith. By biblical definitions, to be a Christian is by its very nature to be incorporated into a body — the ‘body of Christ.’ Apart from that body, there are no Christians — whatever a person’s private belief system.”

Through participation in worship and fellowship events, we become members of a Christian community that gathers because each member has been chosen by Christ, not because they have chosen each other. Being a member of such a community is vitally important for older adults, who must cope with many losses. Although we face losses throughout our lives, our losses accelerate as we age. We lose our health, our spouses, our friends, our homes, our possessions and even our identities. Participation in a Christian community continually builds new relationships with people of all ages.

A Christian community helps bear each other’s burdens. Depression is not uncommon in older adults, and it can greatly affect a person’s spiritual life. Not being able to feel God’s presence can lead people to question their faith when they need it most. The Christian community helps each other remember the times when they have felt closest to God. The community also helps each other hope for what God has promised in Jesus Christ. When feeling God’s presence is impossible, we can still remember and hope.

Maintaining a personal relationship with God is important. Prayer is how we converse with God, and meditation is how we listen to God. Relationships cannot grow without conversation and listening. Dorothy, a 91-year-old member of the congregation I serve, tells me that prayer gives her a sense of security. After praying for things such as help through a surgery or protection for her family, she feels secure knowing that her concerns are now in God’s hands. Hearing about answered prayers and experiencing them ourselves also strengthen our relationship with God.

Worship and prayer offer hope to older adults. Harold G. Koenig, the director of the Center for Spirituality, Theology and Health at Duke University, has been writing about the positive influence of religion on health for decades. In an interview he said, “Engaging more in a faith community and working on your relationship with God and your spiritual life – that can help you in many ways both mentally, physically, socially, in all areas of your life.” Later in the same interview he said, “God has to remain God in your life, and if God is God and you worship God and you do it faithfully and you do it for the right reasons, then better health will automatically follow.”

Although Koenig says that faith plays a huge role in disease prevention, he does go on to say that it does not guarantee healing. Even so, those with strong faith often help strengthen the faith of others as they struggle with their faith during their illness. In their struggle they come to understand that God was and is always right beside them.

A study conducted by researchers at the University of Texas found a correlation between attending church and living longer. Tom Knox is a former atheist who began attending worship regularly after conducting in-depth study of the medical benefits of faith. He said, “There is a seven-year difference in life expectancy between those who never attend church and those who attend weekly.”

Serving God and serving others plays an important role in the spiritual life of older adults. After people retire they usually have more time to help others. Many older adults enjoy going on mission trips. Others become involved in mission projects closer to home. At the church I serve, a group of men with amazing building skills are reaching out to help others in our community. They recently built several wheelchair ramps. Other members enjoy being surrogate grandparents to the children and youth in our congregation. Some members enjoy making generous donations to help others.  Giving back to God helps us to be grateful for God’s grace and our abundance of blessings. When health begins to fail, service to the church can take the form of writing notes, making phone calls and praying for others.
Studying the Bible and biblical topics is an important source of spiritual growth and comfort for older adults. Some of my most lively Bible studies have been the ones that I taught for older adults. Studying the Bible helps us find purpose and meaning for our lives. It helps us understand the vast love of God for all humankind and gives us the confidence to share that love with others. Reading books on biblical topics helps us connect what the Bible teaches with the issues of today’s world. Participating in discussion groups stimulates our thinking, allows us to engage in loving debate and helps us avoid becoming isolated. Proverbs 9:10 says, “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight.” The wisdom of the older members of a congregation is a great resource for learning to live a life of faith in good times and bad.

Although many self-help books claim to help us find purpose in our lives, the ultimate meaning and purpose of our lives rests in God. The spiritual practices of worship, prayer, meditation, service, and study enable many older adults to enhance their spiritual lives and even provide benefits to their physical, mental and emotional health.

Désirée M. Youngblood has a certification in older adult ministries and is a former board member of Presbyterian Older Adult Ministries Network. She is the pastor of Prince of Peace Presbyterian Church of Pickerington, Ohio, a multigenerational, multicultural congregation in the Columbus area.