Celebrating Holy Days in the Midst of Covid — Again!

Today Christians around the world celebrate the most important religious holiday of our faith, Easter, while our Jewish brothers and sisters come to the close of their major religious festival: Passover. This brings me to memories of holiday past.

Looking back on my childhood as a young Boomer growing up in the sixties and seventies, I remember how my little Jewish school chums Vicky and Terry and Anita would be away from school for approximately a week in order to celebrate their holy days. I envied the extra time they got off school and I greatly missed Vicky, who was of my best friends. After their period of religious observance was over, they would come back to class with stories of a special meal shared around the family table with close friends and relatives.

As I remember the Easter of my childhood, with the beautiful Easter music at church (and the new outfit complete with hat, gloves and purse — my friend Elizabeth always had ruffles on her socks, another thing I very much envied!), and the little seed pots we planted during Sunday School class, there is one thing without which Easter would not be complete: family. As for my Jewish friends, food and family were central to our holy feast day too. There would be the big turkey that my mother would have placed in the oven early Sunday morning, so that the meal would be ready when we returned home from worship, and my grandmother and great aunt would be there to share the meal with us. Indeed, the celebration would not have been complete without them. And if my brother and I had not stuffed ourselves silly on all the chocolate eggs the Easter bunny had left us in the wee hours of the morning, we would enjoy a most delicious dinner!

Now I would be dishonest if I were to tell you that these holidays were perfect enactments of the happy family meals portrayed in shows like Leave it to Beaver, Father Knows Best, the Donna Reid Show, Ozzie and Harriet or The Partridge Family. Our family dinners were not like those depicted in a Norman Rockwell painting. Far from it! While my great Aunt Maude bordered on sainthood, my father’s relationship with his mother was strained at the best of times and this often impacted our gatherings. But even with their imperfections, I still miss these special family meals, especially since four of the people are now gone and my eldest son is teaching far away in the Middle East.

These memories tug at my heart strings all the more this spring, as we enter our second year of the COVID-19 pandemic. How do we celebrate these special times without our loved ones near? Perhaps an answer can be found in the traditional Jewish Seder meal liturgy. As the family gathers around the table, a child asks: “Father, why is this night so different from all the others?” And the father (or now sometimes the mother) proceeds to share the story of their family history from long ago, how they were once slaves in Egypt until God freed them from slavery and brought them to a new land.

Today, friends, if you cannot get together with your family, use this time to write a letter to each of them, especially the youngsters. Tell them about the struggles, challenges and disappointments you have faced in life (we all have some!), and share how you got through them. Then remind them of the Hope of our faith and the Promised Land which lies beyond COVID and beyond all our heartaches, difficulties and sorrows.

Anishinaabe Elder Art Solomon: Pass it on! “It’s That Simple!”

Every generation needs people who will guide and mentor them. We Baby Boomer are well placed to take up this mantle and help and support the younger generations coming up behind us.

In an interview that he gave to Canadian researcher S. M. Stiegelbauer, the late Arthur Solomon, a spiritual elder of the Anishinaabe First Nation, once explained the role of the one who finds him or herself in the second half of life, which highlights the role of spiritual mentors. He said:

“You see, the elder, the concept for me is like if you go into a strange land and you don’t know the country and you’re swamped and there’s muskegs and there’s bad places to travel and there’s good places to travel. So, the ones who have been there longer are the good guides because they know how to get around the swamps, know where to go on. It doesn’t matter if there’s a trail. They know that country. You know the channel, on the north side of the channel? That was cut by glaciers, the second to last one, and they cut deep. The last one that came down, they cut this way almost directly across the other. What they have left is all these whale-backs or humpback, and if you’re travelling close to the borders of the channel on the far side, then you’re always going up and down and around. Always like that. But if you go maybe a half mile north, you’re walking on good land. That’s how simple it is. So, there are in fact guides who have been there who have each individually lived through their own hell and have found their way and they are in fact guides. So, if you are going into a strange land, and God knows it’s strange to so many young people, and [if you] can avoid all that and ensure [yourself] a good trip, that’s really what it is. It’s that simple.”[1]

Solomon understood how important it is to have good guides as we traverse this often strange and dangerous land we call life.  Today it is our task to pass on our knowledge, our stories, our faith and our traditions to those who follow. In many ways, we are like runners in a relay race, where the runner behind us runs by our side for a while, and then we pass on the baton of our traditions to them. We thus find ourselves in that part of the race where we are running side by side with those who are coming up behind us.

How are you serving as a guide or mentor to the young people in your life? I would love to hear from you!


[1] S. M. Stiegelbauer, What is an Elder? What do Elders Do? First Nation Elders as Teachers in Culture-Based Urban Organizations, Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto, pp. 41–42.

There Is Still Time to Register for Preparing for Retirement: A Practical Spirituality….

Click here to register

April 15, April 22, April 29  1:30 – 3:15 pm ET  / 10:30 am – 12:15 pm PT

Course Description

Retiring is one of the major transitions in our lives, and like all transitions it raises many spiritual questions. We often find ourselves asking questions about identity, purpose, and value. As the day comes closer we can be both excited at the prospect of having more unstructured time to spend with family members or on other life passions, but also anxious about how to plan for and cope with the inevitable losses.

Ministers and church leaders also often experience a perceived loss of community status, and sometimes loss of many of the social networks that helped us to stay grounded. In the midst of the losses, the uncertain in-between times, and the new beginnings, there are important spiritual questions to ask and dilemmas to prepare for.

Join us for a three part series:

  • Part 1– Endings. The Exodus
    • We’ll spend some time articulating the variety of things that are coming to an end — the things we’re relieved to be letting go of, and the things we’ll miss the most — and take some time to compare this to other life transitions we’ve already been through. What helped us cope then? Where was God in those earlier transitions? What can we learn from other transitions that help us find meaning in this one?
  • Part Two — Life in the Wilderness
    • Almost nobody ever moves immediately from ending to new beginning; the time in-between is often the most uncomfortable, and yet the most creative part of the whole transition. We’ll reflect on what the Israelites learned between the Red Sea and the Jordan River, and how that might offer some insight into managing the chaos and anticipation of the in-between time
  • Part Three — The Promised Land
    • Crossing the Jordan River brought the Israelites all sorts of new possibilities, and some new structure and regularity to their lives. But there were struggles too; things they weren’t expecting; things that surprised them; things they’d never planned for. We’ll explore how their journey into Promised Land can be a fruitful metaphor and guide as we plan for the unexpected in the next stage of life.

Cost: $29.99 for the series — $5 discount if you pay online

Click HERE to Register

Recordings

All these sessions will be recorded, and will be available in our Recorded Webinars section. Click HERE.

Leader

Sheila Macdonald Macgregor has served as an ordained minister in the United Church of Canada for more than 30 years. She holds an M.Div from Princeton Theological Seminary and a D.Min from McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago, where her research focussed on spirituality in the second half of life. Sheila is the author of Re-designing Your Life: A Practical Spirituality for the Second Half of Life, which was generously supported by a McGeachy Senior Scholarship from the United Church of Canada Foundation.
Praise for Re-designing Your Life: A Practical Spirituality for the Second Half of Life

“A timely book for us baby boomers who are seeking to live our final chapters with personal and spiritual integrity. Macgregor shares relatable stories in clear and deeply personal ways, introduces great resources for aging well, dusts off biblical sign posts to help us rediscover the kingdom of God within and makes the renovating of our lives feel much less lonely. A fine resource for both personal reflection and group discussion.”
Mardi Tindal, former Moderator, The United Church of Canada  

“In a culture yearning for meaning and purpose, Sheila Macgregor offers us both. This book brings the wisdom of the ages to those of us seeking the way through the second half of our lives in compelling and practial ways. It will certainly shape the way I live my life going forward.” 
Rev. Dr. Jeffrey Japinga, former Dean, Doctor of Ministry Program, McCormick Theological Seminary  

ufclogo
In 2002 the Executive of the General Council of the United Church of Canada, established the United Church of Canada Foundation.  Now, 19 years later, it is an independent charitable organization that expertly manages the trusts and endowments that benefit The United Church of Canada, its communities of faith and related organizations. The Foundation was kickstarted by over 250 Founders – individuals and organizations who believe in the work of the United Church – each made gifts of over $1,000.  The United Church of Canada matched those generous gifts with significant support from a significant bequest. The Foundation believes that the United Church has an important role to play in the world’s future and together can continue to change Canada for the better, strengthening congregations and following the words of A New Creed: “To live with respect in Creation, to love and serve others, to seek justice, and resist evil.”. The Foundation’s mission is to help generous people sustain the work of The United Church of Canada, its congregations and its partners, in life and beyond; empower individuals and congregations who are looking to invest in the future of the church make meaningful impacts for years to come; and support new initiatives, ministries, and programs that enrich the church through its extensive granting and award program. Thanks to the generosity of donors, today the Foundation makes grants totalling over $6.5 million dollars in yearly in support of leaders, projects across Canada, and our shared denominational work. To learn more about the Foundation please visit their website https://www.unitedchurchfoundation.ca/.
The McGeachy Senior Scholarship     Thanks to generous donors who believe that academic study and education is important to the growth of the United Church of Canada, The United Church of Canada Foundation offers various academic award and scholarship opportunities. These awards are available to United Church ministers, ministry students, and lay people. One of these scholarships is The McGeachy Senior Scholarship. The estates of William A. and Margaret H. McGeachy, an agricultural family in southwestern Ontario, established a fund and this scholarship through a substantial bequest. The intent of the scholarship is to develop leaders who will provide The United Church of Canada with discernment and direction that inspire and challenge the church towards creative and faithful mission. The aim of this scholarship is to serve the church as well as the individual doing the project. McGeachy Scholars are expected to express the prophetic vision of the church and to interpret Christ’s call to justice and peace in our pluralistic world. To learn more about this award and read the works that it has supported visit the foundations website here https://www.unitedchurchfoundation.ca/grants/education-based-grants/.  

Old Age Has a Beauty All Its Own and Our World Would be Greatly Impoverished Without our Elderly

In his research on spirituality and aging, Paul Higgs asserts that since the 1960s a growing trend toward individualism among Baby Boomers has led many to reject the traditional family. The emphasis is on personal choice. People derive greater social capital from lifetime friends and partners with whom they choose to spend time than they do from the traditional family. These changes have been described by Ulrich Beck as constituting a “revolution by side effects.’ Esping-Andersen suggests that we are witnessing a ‘new logic of family formation.”

Higgs notes that the above trends have also been accompanied by ideologies of youthfulness and opportunity, “symbolized by the consumerist quartet of choice, autonomy, pleasure and self-expression.” This has further impacted people’s spirituality. Those who came of age in the sixties, now in the third quarter of life, regard belief primarily as an issue of choice rather than of religious affiliation.

What is disturbing is that many now in the third quarter of life regard the fourth quarter, not with dignity, but rather as a kind of “black hole”, something to be feared and avoided. The constant parade on TV and social media of ultra-youthful images of people in their senior years only serves to reinforce the bias against aging. Many feel that if they can buy enough pills, anti-aging cream, and hair transplants that they will be able to avoid getting older. The advertising market that pushes these products only serves to further stigmatize the elderly and leave them feeling undesirable and unwanted. Currently those who feel this way, says Higgs, may choose to bypass the fourth quarter of life altogether through suicide and the legalization of euthanasia.

Yet, this view of the fourth quarter of life is entirely at odds with what we find in the scriptures. In Proverbs 20:29, we read:The glory of young men is their strength, but the splendour of old men is their gray hair.” In Job 12:12, the author writes: “Wisdom is with the aged, and understanding in length of days.” And Proverbs 16:31 proclaims: “Gray hair is a crown of glory; it is gained in a righteous life.” Then there is Isaiah 46:4: Even to your old age I am he, and to gray hairs I will carry you. I have made, and I will bear; I will carry and will save.” Finally, in  Psalm 92:14: “They still bear fruit in old age; they are ever full of sap and green.”

Unfortunately, Higgs believes that the culture of the Baby Boomers with its emphasis on free choice and autonomy and the constant pursuit of youthfulness means that the fourth quarter will be met by denial and fear and possibly lead to more instances of euthanasia. This is sad and, as we have seen, completely negates the loveliness of the elderly and the wisdom with which God has crowned them. The senior years have a beauty of their own. I pray that more of us who are in the second and third quarters of life can lift up the value of old age. To strive only for eternal youthfulness is self-deceiving and vain. A world without our very elderly would be greatly impoverished. Don’t you agree?

Youth Ministry and Boomer Ministry Face a Similar Challenge: “The emperor has no clothes!”

A few years ago Youth Ministry scholars like Christian Smith and Princeton’s Kenda Creasy Dean identified a disturbing trend in North American youth ministry programs. As they noted, a significant part of what passes for the faith is only tenuously Christian in any sense that is seriously connected to the historical Jesus and his teachings.

Smith says that what composes Christian teaching in most mainline churches now is really “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism”. He writes that that MTD may be defined by the following beliefs:

  1. A God exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human life on earth.
  2. God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Old and New Testaments and by most world religions.
  3. The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
  4. God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.
  5. Good people go to heaven when they die. (Smith 2005, pp. 162–163.)

Many youth programs are just fun and games, with no spiritual meat. They are just entertainment.  We teach our young that the goal is to have a happy life and the way to achieve this is by being a good person, a responsible and moral citizen. If we are honest we really just want to make sure we raise up good church members, people who will pay the bills and keep the doors open when we are not able to do so.

I think this was already a problem when we Boomers were young. True, some of us went off to fight for social justice and an end to racial discrimination. But many others set about to become good consumers, with a little niceness thrown in. Today many of us continue to worship at the altar of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.

Speaking about today’s challenges, which may have started with us Boomer parents and grandparents:

“The problem does not seem to be that churches are teaching young people badly, but that we are doing an exceedingly good job of teaching youth what we really believe: namely, that Christianity is not a big deal, that God requires little, and the church is a helpful social institution filled with nice people …. if churches practice Moralistic Therapeutic Deism in the name of Christianity, then getting teenagers to church more often is not the solution (conceivably it could make things worse). A more faithful church is the solution … Maybe the issue is simply that the emperor has no clothes.” (Kenda Creasy Dean, pp. 23-24)

There’s a reason why thousands and thousands of young people flock to Taizé every year and it’s not for the clever ice-breakers! It’s because they are seeking a deeper connection with God and they want to make a difference in the world.

I think we Boomers want to make a difference too, now more than ever. So how do we turn things around? How do we nurture a faith in ourselves and our grandchildren that is faithful to the teachings of the One we claim to follow?

Jane Kuepfer: Spiritual Resources to Sustain You in the Second Half of Life

                What spiritual resources have sustained you over your life and which ones will sustain you as you get older?

          This question was the focus of an important study carried out by the Rev. Dr. Jane Kuepfer and represented the central research question for her PhD dissertation. Kuepfer’s research was carried out with a group of first-wave Baby Boomers, born between 1946 and 1955. All had grown up in relatively homogenous southern Ontario and were steeped in the post WWII values of hard work, loyalty and the importance of family and community. All had grown up in the church, although from different denominations, and a few no longer attended church. Many have accessed a variety of resources to meet their spiritual needs, including counseling, spiritual direction, contemplative practice, retreats, life-coaching, support groups, and holistic healthcare, in addition to the more traditional religious practices like Sunday worship, prayer, and Bible study.

While the people in the study employed a diversity of spiritual resources, including some of the more traditional resources, Kuepfer discovered three themes that consistently emerged: Self or living intentionally and with self-care (Inner Resources), Someone (Relational Resources), and Space (Environmental Resources which referred to both physical space and the spaciousness of time). Among these Boomers there was found to be an openness to differences, more reliance on self and on written sources other than the Bible, an interest in reading and conversation as spiritual resources, a desire to continue learning (especially about spirituality), and changes in rituals, particularly as these relate to funerals. Kuepfer’s findings will definitely be of benefit to anyone seeking to provide spiritual care in seniors residences, nursing homes and the local faith community.

Can you relate to Kuepfer’s conclusions? Where have you found spiritual sustenance in your life to date and where do you expect to find the spiritual resources you will need as you enter the third and fourth quarters of your life? I would love to hear from you!

What did Protestant Baby Boomers Do for Lent When They Were Kids?

Okay, if you grew up Protestant, especially in the Reformed tradition, back during the decades of the Baby Boom, what did you do for Lent? Many of us went to Church and Sunday School back then because it was the thing that one did. But do any of you remember doing anything special for Lent? I can remember my Catholic friends having to give something up for the six weeks leading to Easter, often candy or desserts, but sometimes a favourite TV show. And although it wasn’t Lent, I remember my Jewish school chums also celebrating a very special meal called Passover, which often seemed to coincide with our Easter. But for the life of me, I cannot remember doing anything during the Season of Lent at the United Church where I grew up in the sixties and early seventies.

          In the last twenty-five to thirty years, our Protestant churches have tried to introduce practices that would highlight this important season in our Church year. We have used Lenten candle liturgies with our children in worship, a kind of reverse Advent candle liturgy. (Come to think of it, we didn’t have Advent wreaths when I was growing up either!) Instead of lighting a candle for every week, you snuff one out until you finally come to Good Friday when all the candles are snuffed out, symbolizing the death of Christ.

          Nowadays many of us crave more ritual and spiritual practices in our day to day lives. Ritual helps to ground us and connect us more deeply to one another and to our faith. Today we have Shrove Tuesday Pancake Suppers, Ash Wednesday Services, Lenten devotions and of course one or two special services during Holy Week. But when I was a kid I don’t even remember having a Good Friday service. For that matter, we did not celebrate Christmas Eve either.

          So what did we do? Does anyone remember? I would love to hear from you!

It’s Family Day! Boomers Burning the Candle at Both Ends Need to Take Time for Family and Themselves

          Today is Family Day in Canada. It is still a relatively new holiday here, but a good reminder that we need to take some time to dedicate to the nurture of our family. It is also a welcome break in the middle of a bitterly cold, snowy albeit mostly sunny winter. Of course we should take time every day to honour our families and those who are close to our hearts.

          Unfortunately, this has been a lesson that many Baby Boomers have learned the hard way. Throughout our lives we have worked extremely long hours, often sacrificing our families on the altar of career advancement. This is especially true of those who entered the ministry.

For example, in my own life, one of the things I have struggled with is the belief that I can do it all. When I entered theological college in the late seventies, women were just beginning to flood the previously male-dominated seminary halls, and this, even though the first time a woman was ordained in the United Church of Canada occurred some forty years earlier when Lydia Gruchy was ordained in 1936. Few Canadians realize that for nearly thirty years thereafter only single women could be ordained to the ministry of Word and Sacraments. I still remember the older female colleague who called on me one day to congratulate me on my recent ordination and to see my new baby. My heart broke as she told me that when she was ordained back in the mid-1950s she had to choose between getting married and having a family or going into full-time ordained ministry. My generation of women, on the other hand, had been given choices that had never been available to her. That said, because the doors now seemed to open wide to me and my sisters in ministry, many of us believed we could do it all and have it all — a full-time ministry in the church and a family — and we nearly killed ourselves in the process!

Moreover, because we were still trying to prove that we could minister just as effectively as our male counterparts, we often burnt the candle at both ends. To this day, I profoundly regret a decision I made to leave my two-year-old daughter and her three-week-old baby brother to take part in a three-day meeting several hours from where we lived. While I had a wonderfully supportive husband and a dear friend who loved the children as her own, my place in those early days should have been at home enjoying this precious time with my little ones. I would like to say that I learned my lesson by the time my two younger sons were born, but that would not be true. I was still trying to keep up with the guys!

 The good news is that in the last few years I have witnessed real changes taking place in the lives of my younger colleagues, male, female and transgender, who have better personal boundaries when it comes to protecting their family time.

I still have a lot of improvement to make with regard to establishing healthy boundaries to protect my time with my family. But this is a start. That’s why I plan to enjoy Family Day today with my loved ones. I hope you will too!

Using Ritual in Covid Times to Connect the Generations and Make Meaning Together

          In recent years I have been fascinated by the work of Rabbi Richard Address of Jewish Sacred Aging and his colleagues as they have explored questions around the role and value of ritual in older adult relationships. For many years anthropologists have believed that ritual is not only important to mark significant transitions in life, but also as way to create meaning and help people better understand who they are.

          One of the pioneers in the field of ritual, especially as it relates to people in later life, is the late cultural anthropologist Barbara Myerhoff. In summarizing Myerhoff’s research, Sherylyn Briller and Andrea Sankar note that Myerhoff felt that “rituals are important in daily life because they carry a basic message of ‘order, continuity, and predictability.’ It is precisely their predictable and repetitive nature that gives them their power.”[1]

          In times of change when life is more uncertain, rituals help to provide people with a connection to their past, while supporting them as they navigate transitions. Rituals offer stability and help people to make sense of their world.

          I can think of no time that is in more need of a sense of stability and continuity than the present. As we live through the Covid-19 pandemic, we need practices and people we can count on. We need the gift of ritual in our lives and this is especially true for our older adults.

          My friend Catherine sees her 92-year-old mother several times a week, often picking up prescriptions for her or various items she might need from the grocery store. But one activity in particular that both mother and Baby Boomer daughter look forward to each week is brunch on Sunday morning. That’s when they sit and watch their church’s worship service, which is broadcast on their community television station.  Catherine says that this is much better than watching the service on one’s own, which can sometimes feel more like a spectator sport. As she observes, this is an “immersive” experience for them where they actually get to participate in worship. Catherine brings a lovely meal along with some delicious home baking and together they share good food, good conversation and a time of worship – something that in pre-Covid days they had enjoyed doing together when communities of faith were allowed to gather in person.

          This wonderful weekly ritual gives them both grounding during what has been a difficult and tumultuous year. It brings them together through a shared experience that is both meaningful and life-giving. What’s more: they have fun together!


[1] Briller, Sherylyn, and Andrea Sankar. “The Changing Roles of Ritual in Later Life.” Generations: Journal of the American Society on Aging 35, no. 3 (2011): 6-10. Accessed February 7, 2021. doi:10.2307/26555787.

Beliefs That Guide Us Through Life

Thanks to Rev. Kevin Steeper for referring me to a new book on retirement written by Bruce G. Epperly, a Process theologian whose writings I have followed for some time: The Jubilee Years. Embracing Clergy Retirement. Although my own book on retirement, ReDesigning Your Life. A Practical Spirituality for the Second Half of Life, takes a more applied or hands-on approach to preparing for retirement, including discussion topics centered in scripture and exercises for small groups, we cover many of the same themes. What I love about this scholarly although very accessible work by Epperly is that it grounds the discussion in our theology. Not surprising since Epperly, among his many accomplishments, has taught theology at the university level.

Chapter two of Epperly’s book is appropriately titled “Theological Guideposts.” He begins with a wonderful quote from his longtime friend, retired United Church of Canada minister George Hermanson, whom many of us remember from his years as innovative Director of Five Oaks in Paris, Ontario. Advising clergy who are about to retire, Hermanson writes: “Get a theology. My theology has enabled me to see retirement as a time of possibility and hope. Without a theology, you don’t have a roadmap for the adventure ahead.”

This may seem rather odd counsel when so much of the retirement literature focusses on finances and health care concerns or planning for winters in the south — when the borders open up again and for those who can afford it. But as Epperly observes, “Theology provides light on our pathway and enables us to face life’s challenges with hope and grace. Theology helps us to respond to new possibilities along with the necessary losses and ‘unfixables’ of the aging process.” In his own life, Epperly has found Lamentations 3:22-23 to be a helpful resource for his personal and professional life and believes these verses will serve him well in retirement too. You may remember that it is from these lines that we get the wonderful hymn: “Great is thy Faithfulness.”

I wonder. What is the foundational theology or belief that has guided you throughout your life? And how can this continue to bring you hope and faith as you journey through the second half or even final third of your life, including retirement? As a young person I memorized many scripture passages that have stayed with me my whole life long. One which I bring to mind whenever I am facing a new or challenging and possibly anxious or disquieting situation is from Psalm 56:3: “What time I am afraid I will trust in Thee.” Of course, in those days we still used the King James Version of the bible; however, the meaning is the same in the New Revised Standard version. It just sounds less poetic!

As I anticipate retirement sometime in the next decade, I am filled with apprehension. Will I have enough money to retire? Will I be healthy enough to enjoy the things I still want to do in life? More importantly, how will I find meaning and purpose and friendship when so much of these life-giving treasures have come to me through my work in congregational ministry?

Over the coming weeks I will explore these and other themes dealt with by Epperly, whose book I hope you will read. Although aimed primarily at clergy, there is much here to commend to Boomers from all walks of life.