A second half of life church

I think I can say with some confidence that most of us are in the second half of life. We are an over 50 sort of congregation, at least. Though of course many of us will say that we will feel just the same inside as we did when we were in our 20s..
But I’ve been reading a Franciscan writer, called Richard Rohr (in his book Falling Upward), who suggests that there is another sense in which life is divided into two halves. He says that in the first half of life we all need to estbalish who we are, to find our identity, to make a secure place in the world, to find what the rules are and what we should be doing and believing and thinking. We become ourselves. But in the second half, after we have inevitably endured some pain in life and experienced ourselves as those who sometimes fail and fall, then we find we can let go a bit of the self we have carefully nurtured, the longing for success, and even the keeping of the rules. We can let other things be, let ourselves go in a good sense and learn to celebrate the joy and the grace and the love than come without us planning or owning them into the lives we share with others. In the first half of life, you might say, we build the container for our lives, while in the second half of life we find the contents that this container was actually made to hold and give. You need both halves of life – it’s not at all that one is bad and the other good – but you need both. And without this second half of life, we are not fully alive.
I wonder whether you can identify with any of that? It reminds me a little of that poem by Jenny Joseph, that I know some of you like.. that begins..
When I am an old woman I shall wear purple
With a red hat which doesn’t go, and doesn’t suit me…

I think she might be reaching for something of the same thing as my Franciscan. We do have to learn how to pay the rent and read the papers and do all the right things, but there comes a time when we find out what all that was for…There may come a point in life, when you’ve learned the rules, when you’ve established a life with a shape and a purpose and then you discover that the rules are there to be bent for the sake of something bigger, something more about love and colour and life.
And I wonder whether this is what the Gospel story for today might be about. We hear of a woman who had been bent double for 18 years – a very large part of life now, and and an even bigger proportion of a human life then. She hadn’t been able to stand up straight for years and years. But Jesus found a way to release her, so that, in the final part of her life, she could dance again. I can imagine her going home and putting on her most colourful clothes and going out strutting her stuff, set free at last.
But there is someone else in the story who is stuck, you might say, in the first half of life. He is bent double in a different way – unable to live lthe life that God had given him. The president of the synagogue (or we might say perhaps the senior elder..) knows the rules and he wants them kept. And they are good rules too. The sabbath law was and is one of the most liberating pieces of good news the world has ever known. It’s a good law and one we need to learn to honour and keep in new ways in every generation – so that workers are not exploited and life has a good rhythm for all people. But there are times when even a good rule is more honoured in the breach and this is one of them. Jesus, who also worshipped in the synagoge and was shaped by the good law, was someone who was confident enough about the law’s purpose and about God’s good grace to know when to break the law, when to say its spirit was more important than its letter. Jesus, even in his early 30s, was living in the second half of life.
Luke ends the story by saying of Jesus that ‘the mass of the people were delighted at all the wonderful things he was doing’. There were many who could see that to heal someone, to open up life for another human being, was at that moment the right and blessed thing to do.
Jesus was someone who lived in the second half of life. That’s why he could urge people to ‘lose’ their lives for the sake of something greater. We learn first in life (if we are fortunate) to build up ourselves, to make a way in the world, to strengthen our egos. But Jesus tells those who have done that now to give all that away, to let go, to die to self, to rejoice in the gifts of others, to let the rules serve the world God is bringing and not be enslaved anymore to ‘the way things ought to be’. And he knows that it is the people with the most secure lives, the most splendid ‘containers’ for their lives who may find this more difficult. And in fact it’s often those who have known most pain or experienced most failure who will discover most readily that the second half of life is different from the first.
Of course churches always actually contain a great mix of people, and many of us, no matter how old we are, are still too much shaped by the ways of the first half of life, sometimes too much for our own good. All of us sometimes want to fall back more on the 10 commandments than the 8 Beatitudes. All of us may be fearful of the thought of living in any other way than by the rules.
In this story from the Gospel I somehow recognise both the woman bent double and the leader of the religious community. In every church I’ve ever known there have been those who’ve been arguing when there was rejoicing to be done, who’ve picked over the details in a negative spirit when there was a bigger and more positive picture to see, who’ve been screwed up about something or other when God was waiting and longing to straighten out their lives, who’ve been worried that we should keep the rules when stretching them was the really right thing in that moment – and sometimes I’ve been among them. But these too are ways of being bent double and they can plague all of us human beings for all of our lives. It is somehow part of us that we can turn the greatest of good news back into a problem. Is it really so impossible for us to leave grace unspoiled by our worrying that our version of it has to be the best one or the only right one?
Some people thought that the film Life of Brian was irreverent and tasteless. And maybe it was and maybe it’s not everyone’s sense of humour. But it did a good job at exposing some of the daft ways we religious folk can behave sometimes. We read stories like the one about the woman bent double and of course ‘tut’ about those who argued about her healing. But we’ve sometimes done that too, when we fear losing the order we’re used to or the rules we’ve learned to live by. We need to hear more stories of a life uncurled and unbound. And we probably need to let God unbind our own lives, and give us the grace to become people truly in the second half of life. Let’s join the mass of people who were simply delighted at what Jesus had done and at all the wonderful things he was doing. And let’s open our own frail lives to the healing and unfurling love of God.
I can imagine the woman who was once bent double – a bit diminished like many older women are – suddenly able to stand up tall for the first time in years, suddenly able to look the synagogue president in the eye, suddenly able to see Jesus – and she might say to future generations of biblical scholars – ‘A controversy story you call this one in your cataloguing of Bible stories?! Well, if you like. But there was nothing controversial about it as far as I was concerned, just the end of a long night and the beginning at last of a bright and sunny new day. You enjoy a controversial story about the law and who should break it if you will. I will just get on with living.. I shall wear purple, and a red hat that doesn’t go‘.
Of course it’s ironic that anyone would think it odd to be cured on the Sabbath. Wasn’t the Sabbath a day for heaven to break into earth, for new life to be found and for the world to be made new? I do believe that it is possible for people to change, to find the healing they need and to be saved from whatever it is that harms us. It does not always happen in the way we would like or the way we seek – but perhaps we do not take enough time to recognise in the church community the miracle of human lives that can find healing from the most terrible hurts or which can uncurl after retreating into grief or sorrow. Even if you think that you have lived your life and that nothing much is going to change, it could just be that the second half of life, or the last decade, will bring something new – a new maturity, a new joy, a new openness to others. You might find that you can stop caring now so much what others think of you, and care more about what you might give to others. You might find that, through all that you’ve learned and endured in life you can find a new appreciation of the gift and opportunity of life. You might find that in the second half of life, you are freer to give love and joy to others.
Let’s hope and pray that today, on our holy day, in our sabbath space, someone might be straightened out and be able to praise God with a new and stronger voice. Let’s pray that all of us might be able to take one step away from the fearfulness of those who want to live only by the rules. Let’s begin to discover the life that God is pouring into the selves we have made. Let’s ask God for the real gift of being a second half of life church, in every sense. Amen.