Boomers Raised to be Good Citizens, Not Disciples of Jesus

Nearly 50 years ago, John Westerhoff published a book on Christian education which sold millions and was translated into no fewer than six different languages. In it Westerhoff posed a question that is even more urgent in 2022 than it was then: Will our children have faith?

In 1976, when Westerhoff published his book, the youngest Baby Boomers were twelve. It is generally agreed that Boomers were the last generation to fill  United Church of Canada Sunday School classrooms and youth groups on a regular weekly basis. Does this make them more religious, more spiritual, or more faithful to the teachings of the Church? Not really. Those who have studied the United Church of Canada in depth have found that the desire to see our children raised in the church had less to do with the saving of souls and much more to do with creating people who would become good, hardworking, law-abiding citizens of Canada. Thus, when many of these Boomers were confirmed, they did what most young people do when they graduate from high school. They left. Their education complete, they were ready to embark on the path of responsible citizenship. Some of course stayed or, over the years, found their way back to church. But many did not. We taught them how to be good citizens, but we failed to give them a faith they could live for, a faith that would sustain them not only in the good times but also through the hard times.

We also failed to connect their own story with the story of Jesus Christ, so that with each generation the story grows dimmer and dimmer. And not surprisingly, so has our faith. As probably our greatest Canadian theologian Douglas John Hall writes, “A church that no longer asks about its theological foundations [ – about its founding story — ] will be absorbed, sooner or later, in the general secular mélange. It’s only a matter of time.”

Sadly, it seems that this is where we find ourselves today.

Another Charming Coming of Age Tale for Those of Us in Life’s Second Half

Last week you may recall that I talked about a lovely coming of age novel for those of us in the second half of life: Iona Iverson’s Rules for Commuting. This week I would like tell you about another novel from the same genre that I read over the summer: How the Penguins Saved Veronica by Hazel Prior.

The curmudgeonly but loveable Veronica McCreedy sits down one evening to watch a documentary about a penguin colony in Antarctica, only to find herself inexorably drawn to these adorable little creatures.  In fact, she contemplates leaving her vast fortune to the team of scientists who work at the base. Just to be sure that this is the best use of her money, she resolves to visit the isolated outpost, even though the scientists strongly urge her not to come to their extremely remote, cramped, and humble rustic abode. But Veronica does not listen.

Thus begins an adventure that takes Veronica from the comforts of her lovely estate in Ayrshire, Scotland to the opposite ends of the earth. The adventure, however, turns out to be less about geography and more about an exploration into the human heart. Not only does Veronica connect with a grandson she did not even know she had, but she also rescues and befriends a tiny, orphaned penguin who works his way into her heart and the hearts of all the scientists at the base. As she reflects on her long life, with its sorrows and disappointments, Veronica discovers new purpose and for the first time feels that her life has meaning and worth.  More importantly, she finds her family.

A Wonderful Novel for the Second Half of Life — or Any Age

Lately I have been drawn to a new genre of literature: coming of age books for those of us who find ourselves in the second half of life. One of my favourite reads this past summer is a book by British author Clare Pooley, Iona Iverson’s Rule for Commuting. A Novel.

Iona Iverson is a fashionable, highly opinionated but loveable advice columnist who takes the train every day from her home in Hampton Court to her workplace in the heart of London. She is an astute observer of the people who also ride the train to work each day, but she does not actually get to know anyone personally. Why? Because one never talks to strangers! Then one of the passengers, a pompous git called Piers, chokes on a grape and suddenly everyone around him, including Iona, flies into emergency response mode to help him. Through this freak encounter, during which Piers nearly dies, an eclectic group of strangers is suddenly brought together in a most delightful way. Witty, fun, charming, uplifting, this feel-good novel shows what can happen when we take down our guard and open ourselves up to the possibility of caring for others quite different from ourselves. Pooley invites us into the lives of unforgettable characters who are complicated, quirky, and funny.

While Iona wrestles with the issues and prejudices that face many older adults in the workforce, she soon makes friends with people all across the generations. In the process she discovers that strangers can teach you a lot — not only about who they are but also about yourself. You learn, moreover, that you are never too old to start again, especially if you are surrounded by supportive and caring companions.

A New Three-Session Training Program on Spiritual Care and Ageing featuring Professor John Swinton sponsored by CHAT

Returning from a three-month sabbatical study leave this week, I was delighted to find this excellent new course on Spiritual Care and Ageing which can be accessed through Zoom. It is sponsored by CHAT — The Centre for Healthy Aging Transitions in Vancouver, B.C. This very timely and helpful program is designed for those working in accredited seniors centres and residences and for multi-faith spiritual and religious leaders and volunteers. Do check it out!

Visit connect@chatcanada.org for more information and to discover new pathways to meaningful ageing with Spiritual Care Series.

“WE ALL HOLD INNATE RESERVES OF UNIMANGINABLE STRENGTH”

Over the past few weeks I have been looking at the elements that help to build resilience in life: community, legacy, spirituality, and gratitude. The final factor in building a strong, resilient life is service. If you want to build a happy, healthy life, you need to get out of yourself and into the lives of others.

 Over the last three decades I have had an opportunity to get to know many resilient women. Some I have known very closely. Some I have only met or learned about through their memoirs. When I consider their example, service to others is a constant theme. All of them came from fairly ordinary, even humble  backgrounds. But within their own contexts, they all found ways to love and serve others.

 For example, right until her death Elizabeth was a dedicated volunteer in both church and community, sharing generously of her wisdom and mentoring many women like myself; Shirley cared lovingly for her grandchildren, who included I am happy to say my own four children who were not part of her biological family; Rena worked tirelessly to help our Indigenous relations and also made her voice heard in the cause of Amnesty International; Anna refused to let her community forget the horrors of the Holocaust and in her service as mayor kept the cause of peace and environmental justice front and centre; and Jean (Augustine) worked and continues to work tirelessly to end systemic racism and injustice in our society. She also  played a key role in establishing February as Black History Month in Canada.

          In an address that the famous missionary doctor Albert Schweitzer once gave to a class of students graduating from university, he said: “The only ones of you who will be truly happy in life are those of you who seek and find a way to serve.” He might have said: “The only ones of you who will be truly resilient in life are those of you who seek and find a way to serve.”      

So community, legacy, spirituality, gratitude, and service – five  practices that are the hallmark of a strong, healthy, resilient life. These are all practices that everyone of us can learn. To quote Catherine DeVrye, “like tiny seeds with potent power, we can push through tough ground and become mighty trees, for we hold innate reserves of unimaginable strength. We are resilient.”

Before I close today, I want to let you know that this will be my last blog for a while. On May 1st, I begin a three-month sabbatical followed by a month of holidays in August. This will be a time of learning and discernment as I pursue studies in pastoral leadership and theology at Martin Luther University College in Waterloo, as well as a time for much needed rest and renewal.  I wish you all a safe, relaxing and enjoyable spring and summer and look forward to seeing you again in September. Making time for rest is also key to building personal resilience so I hope you will build some rest into your life into the coming months too!

Thank you: Two Little Words that Have Great Power

The fourth factor that contributes to a strong, resilient life is related to spirituality, which we discussed last week. I call this practice gratitude. Psychologists tell us that the expression of gratitude is a kind of meta strategy for building personal resilience and achieving happiness. Those of you who keep a gratitude journal will know what I mean.

First, the practice of gratitude can help us to re-frame those experiences in life that cause us distress or anxiety. Instead of focussing on the deep loneliness that many of us felt during Covid, for example, some have sought to look at the positive things that emerged from this experience, like more time for personal reflection and prayer, the development of patience, finding creative new ways to connect with people, and even spending more time in nature.

Think of gratitude as an anti-dote to negative emotions, a neutralizer of envy, avarice, hostility, worry and irritation. So, it’s much bigger and broader than simply saying thank you for a gift, or a nice compliment, or when someone has passed you the butter!

The world’s most prominent researcher and writer about gratitude, Robert Emmons, defines it as “a felt sense of wonder, thankfulness, and appreciation for life.”  Dr. Anne Beattie-Stokes writes that “gratitude awakens us to beauty, to wonder, to love, to ourselves, and to others.”

When you think of it, two little words can have tremendous power for good: Thank You!

Spirituality: The Most Important Ingredient in a Strong, Resilient Life

In the interviews I have conducted over the years with various women, by far the most significant practice in dealing successfully with aging is spirituality. I would say that this has also been my experience with men.

Even though they were from different denominations, the faith community was integral to the lives of all the people I have studied. For each of them spirituality was a vital component of their resiliency. It’s not that being spiritually strong prevented problems or anxieties from arising. For many it simply meant that fear did not have the last word. Each of them had worries, but they did not get stuck in their anxieties. That’s the key: in spite of multiple losses and daily concerns, they did not “get stuck” in their worries and fears or regrets.

Again, when I talk about spirituality I am not talking about any particular religion or denomination. However, study after study does affirm that participation in a faith community can be a strong support to people undergoing various crises or personal difficulties. Dr. Jeff Levin, a biomedical scientist, asserts that “formal involvement in religious communities reduces the likelihood of experiencing stressors such as chronic and acute illness, marital tension and dissolution, and work-related and legal problems.”

Both public and private prayer are also important. Today many people, both religious and non-religious folks, have experienced enhanced self-esteem through the practice “mindfulness meditation”.

But there’s more. Duke University psychiatrist Harold G. Koenig says that by offering people hope, spirituality helps people to re-frame distressing life experiences and build personal resilience.  The Season of Easter, which we move into next Sunday, is really the perfect time to reframe the negative aspects of our lives. The resurrection of Jesus changes everything because it promises that this life, with its sorrow and disappointment, is not the end. Moreover, the Good News of Easter challenges us to work for a world where all are treated with love and compassion, and the whole of creation is cared for and respected.

Resiliency: The Second Practice – Tell Your Story!

         Over the past couple of weeks I have been talking about building resiliency in the second half of life. I noted that relationships or “community” are key to one’s emotional and physical health, and, while women tend to score better in the area of building a good network of friends, this is something that is essential for all people.

The second practice I would invite you to consider is your legacy to those who follow you. Most resilient people I have known have engaged in some form of storytelling, whether they actually wrote their memoirs down or not. Some have enjoyed scrapbooking or putting together special photo albums. Others have created beautiful quilts which tell the story of their lives. Still others have found the creation of a personal autobiography to be especially beneficial in their later years. It has helped them to reflect on where they have been and enabled them to make sense of those times in their lives  when they experienced pain, or disappointment, or grief.

Here’s something else you should know. Studies also show that reviewing your life story can improve your physical resilience and emotional well-being too. Reviewing your life story can lower your blood pressure and strengthen your immune system. Plus, there is a wealth of anecdotal evidence in the published scientific literature that affirms that “life review” is of tremendous help to people experiencing grief. According to University of Texas professor James Pennebaker, not only does it lower levels of depression, but it is also found to increase problem-solving skills and self-esteem while assisting in the grief process. Like community, sharing your story or legacy is one of those life-giving nutrients that Estes talks about, which enables you to grow your resiliency.

Incidentally, for those of you who have grandchildren or great-nieces and nephews, studies carried out at Emory University have shown that sharing your life story actually has a beneficial impact on your family. And contrary to what you might think, stories about family members who have struggled in life and who have overcome difficulties are often more helpful than are ‘happily ever after’ tales. Robyn Fivush, the Emory psychologist who headed up the study says, “Families who tell family stories have kids who are doing better.”

However, you choose to tell your life story, the key is “just do it!”

COMMUNITY– THE FIRST KEY TO RESILIENCE

Last week I mentioned that, in my studies on women and aging, there seemed to be several key factors that contributed to their resilience. The first is community.

 What I am talking about here is the importance of building good social relationships and meaningful friendships. The research shows that women live longer than men because we are much better at social connections. Even joining a walking group, a yoga class, or a book club, or attending regular services at a church, synagogue or mosque, play a significant role in keeping you healthy. We know, for example, that people with a good circle of friends are better able to handle serious illness and many even recover faster if they have a supportive network.

In a book called Aging Well, Harvard scholar George Vaillant, wrote that six factors predicted healthy aging for a group of Harvard men who were part of a study that began when they were all young, back in 1938, and which continued into older age. One of these men was the late President John F. Kennedy. The six factors that predicted healthy aging were: physical activity, absence of alcohol abuse and smoking, having mature mechanisms to cope with life’s ups and downs, and enjoying both a healthy weight and a stable marriage. No surprises there.

What did surprise the researchers was the role that community played in the men’s resilience and ability to age well. “When the study began, nobody cared about empathy or attachment,” said Vaillant. “But the key to healthy aging is relationships, relationships, relationships.”

Canadian author and psychologist Susan Pinker agrees. She argues that social gatherings are critical to our resiliency and well-being, especially as we age. Indeed, the lack of close personal friendships may shorten our lives faster than cigarettes, salt, sugar and animal fat.[1] Real time, face to face contact, can help us to live healthier and longer lives. Chatting with friends on the porch or over the back fence, playing cards once a week, meeting friends every Tuesday morning at the coffee shop, or going to choir practice every week, can actually lengthen your life and bring you more happiness. And thank goodness we are beginning to move into a time of fewer social restrictions after this long Covid winter, because get this: Study after study shows that these kinds of activities will do far more to promote health and longevity than “slathering on the sunscreen, downing fistfuls of vitamins, …., or sweating it out at the gym or with hot yoga.”[2] 

Again, the key to resilience and healthy aging is “relationships, relationships, relationships.”

The Canadian Mental Health Association says that those aged sixty-five and older suffer from higher levels of depression that the younger populations. Paul Links, former Chief of Psychiatry at the Schulich School of Medicine at Western University, says that his own extensive research in the field also bears this out.[3] He has seen the increase in depression among seniors firsthand in his practice. Links points to the lack of “connectiveness” these people feel to others, their sense of isolation, and loneliness as chief causes of deteriorating mental health among older adults.

Of course, if you are feeling this way, especially for more than a day or so,

 it is imperative to seek medical help. But finding ways to maintain old friendships and build new ones can help to give you the resilience that is so important as we age. Friendship may in fact be the best medicine you can take!


[1] Susan Pinker, The Village Effect. How Face-to-Face Contact Can Make Us healthier and Happier. (Toronto, Vintage Canada, 2015.), p. 7.

[2] Ibid.

[3]Carstensen, A Long Bright Future, 98.

Women and Aging and Resilience

          A couple of weeks ago I was invited to address a special event in honour of International Women’s Day at the Seniors Centre in St. Marys, Ontario. My topic? Women and Aging and Resilience. I identified several women I have known who exhibited tremendous resilience as they aged.

These women all defied the notion that aging is a disease, a problem that must be fixed. As the great Catholic spiritual writer Henri Nouwen once said, “There is the temptation to make aging into the problem of the elderly and to deny our basic human solidarity in this most human process.” The feminist Betty Friedan once commented that the discrimination from which she suffered in her early days because she was a woman was nothing compared to the prejudices she faced as an older woman. She blamed this on the tendency of professionals, scholars, social service workers, clergy, and politicians to view elderly people as “problems to be solved.”

I don’t think it will be a surprise to you when I say that as women we continue to experience a double jeopardy – sexism and ageism. And of course, if you are a person of colour, or lesbian or bi-sexual or trans, or if you are differently abled, then those jeopardies are multiplied and compounded.

So what to do? Well, I think there are lessons we can learn from the stories of  resilient women we have known that can help us to break the bias and combat the challenges women face as we age. I believe that we can all learn to develop resilience by practising five simple steps that I will highlight in my blog over the coming weeks.

First, what is resilience? Think about people who are able to bounce back from hard times. You’ve known people like this. They may have suffered some tragedy or major setback in life and they’re down for a while; but then somehow they manage to pick themselves up, dust themselves off and start all over again. They bounce back. Feminist theologians Janet Ramsey and Rosemary Blieszner write that, resilience “implies an ability not only to cope with traumatic difficulties, but also to respond with flexibility under the pressures of everyday life. People who are resilient have the ability to move beyond being survivors to being thrivers.” They quote the author Ursula Estes who says that resilient women are like “tough little plants” who manage to send out brave little leaves anyway. Estes wrote of women who, their bad times behind them, put themselves into “occasions of the lush, the nutritive, and light” where they could “flourish, and thrive with busy, shaggy, heavy blossoms and leaves.”

Today I invite you to take some time to reflect upon the resilient women you have known. What was it that gave them the power to bounce back from challenging or difficult situations? What enabled them to “keep on keeping on” when others might easily have thrown in the towel? Make a list of the traits or characteristics that spring to mind when you think of these women and note their beliefs and practices too.

These resilient women are all around us. They are ordinary people we encounter everyday in life. They are women from whom we can each learn so much!