The gift of growing old at midlife

Photo: Jeremy Bishop, Unsplash.

On oct. 23, 2013, I had just finished writing my sermon for the following day, which included my fears about turning 50. Laying the sermon aside, I had one more thing to do for the day: blow the leaves and branches off our roof. So up the ladder I went. A few minutes later, I lay on the sidewalk, the leaf blower still humming beside me. I had broken my femur.

I never did preach that sermon. I’ve never located it, either. Wasted words, or perhaps wasted worries. I’m not sure. But that accident and a difficult recovery from surgery led me to pray in those dark months. “Lord, please never allow me to have a chronic neurological disease.” 

Early in 2014, a lump appeared under my left ear. My long history of thyroid cancer, diagnosed at 35, prompted an appointment with my endocrinologist. Two biopsies later, and on the day of my 50th birthday, I received news of a likely recurrence of cancer. The promise was a quick surgery with no follow-up. I awoke with the surgeon apologizing for rupturing the tumor. I would need 30 rounds of radiation. I began to cry. At the end of 2014, when I turned 50, I counted nearly 100 health-related visits.

But in 2015, things began to look up. I remember walking home from the university one sunny day, saying to myself, “I feel so good, and it feels so good to feel good.” But later that fall, I noticed a tremor in my right hand. One medical opinion after another finally led to a Parkinson’s disease diagnosis in 2017 at the age of 52.

In my 20 years of preaching and 30 years of teaching undergraduates, I’ve been known for promoting the idea that suffering is our best teacher. In such times we are more likely to reach out to God. Sometimes we find God especially near during those times. But sometimes, God seems very far away. 

Writing a biography of theologian Walter Brueggemann has taught me that lament and praise always go together. If we fail to lament, we never reach authentic praise. 

“Lament,” says Brueggemann, “is to get in the face of God and demand that God be God. Keep your promises. Do what you said you’re doing. Come back from wherever you are and find me.”

As a preacher, I told the congregation that suffering brings gifts we would never have received otherwise. For me, the gifts have come in abundance. They’ve come so quickly I can’t keep up with them. So quickly that in one moment I’m feeling elation and the next I’m simply humbled that God would give me the desires of my heart in this season of my life. The gift of seeing my horizon. Counting my days in a way that I would not have otherwise. 

About three years after my Parkinson’s diagnosis, I told the congregation that I had experienced a new conversion to the love of Christ. That the obsessive-compulsive terror of a wrathful God and hell — which consumed me for 50 years — had disappeared as I experienced the love of God like never before. 

What I didn’t know then was that experiencing God’s love anew would mess up my theology. That I would begin to see God in new ways in my students who had rejected the church and who the church often rejects. I began to see God’s love where I hadn’t before. 

The rumor began to spread that “our pastor has gone off the deep end.” The next Sunday I told the congregation they were right and should join me. Because the water was fine.

I left the ministry at the end of 2021, a choice I would not have made without Parkinson’s disease, even though it was time for me to do so. I would still have a full plate of ministry, consulting, teaching, writing and generally wearing myself out. 

Though I sometimes lament the slow ebb of my life as it was and now is, I am also where I always dreamed of being. I affirm Romans 8:28, that in “all things God is at work for good to those who love God, who are called according to God’s purpose.” Not to the perfect or good enough, but to those who know they are deeply loved by God and try to love God back. For these, everything is going to work out just fine in the end. 

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