Faith at Midlife
by Lynne M. Baab, published in Refresh: A Journal of Christian Spirituality, winter 2009
Three common midlife experiences have significant implications for the Christian faith journey. I’ll give you brief illustrations of those experiences, then discuss each of the three in more detail.
I was 41 when one of my closest friends died. The same year, I had a life-threatening lung disease with effects that lasted for the better part of a year. Only a few years later, I was back in bed with a serious liver disease after shoulder surgery. Throughout human life, we experience an assortment of losses, but at midlife those losses often seem to accelerate. Job issues, family crises, health problems, and deaths seem to stack up in the midlife years, and sometimes it feels like our faith can’t quite keep up with the demands made on it.
A second common midlife experience is new and enriching discoveries. My husband was always good at drawing and had longed to learn to use colour. But he never had time. In his early fifties, right about the time our nest was emptying, he took a watercolour painting class. Whole worlds of colour opened up to him. Now retired, painting is a major part of his daily life.
Thirdly, midlife for many is a time of questioning, in part because of these losses and discoveries. A friend of mine, as she approached her forties, found herself questioning the relevance of the church. She had experienced several significant challenges, and she felt hurt that the people in her church seemed to abandon her. Where was the Christian community when she needed it? Where was God? Why did she feel so abandoned and discouraged? Disconcerting and challenging questions are common at midlife.
When is midlife? Some experts define it as 35-55. Some observers say it’s most likely to begin when there are teenage children in the house. Others say it happens whenever we start to look back as well as ahead, wondering if we have lived the first half of our life wisely and pondering what we want to do in the second half of life.
Research shows that only about ten percent of people have a full-blown midlife crisis. But many people experience the “messengers of midlife”: increased tears, sleeplessness, and a sense of loss that can be focused on many different areas, including work, family life and personal life. These messengers are a call to look deeper and spend some time nurturing the inner life of faith.
Losses at midlife can happen to us or to those we love. Many people at midlife are sandwiched between parents whose health is declining and children who have entered the challenging teenage years or who are leaving the nest.
Losses can also relate to the way we view ourselves. Some people at midlife talk about the loss of certainty. They feel less positive they know how things should be done or life should be lived. They are less certain that God works in the way they have been taught at church. Some people experience the loss of illusions about themselves as they discover they aren’t the great parent or partner they always thought they would be. Job challenges can create this sense of loss as we have to face up to the fact that we aren’t going to set the world on fire professionally. For those who didn’t marry or have children, or for those whose marriage or parenting relationships didn’t turn out as they hoped, that sense of loss accumulates.
For many at midlife, our physical bodies betray us. Illnesses, weight challenges, and reduced fitness are common. Suddenly physical health requires a lot of intentional action on our part. It doesn’t come easily or automatically any longer.
All these losses require a kind of mourning. We know that God comforts those who mourn, but it takes time and effort to receive that comfort and find ways to renew our trust in God. Giving ourselves the space to feel the intensity of loss is a humiliating exercise, and many find it easier just to keep racing along, attempting to ignore the losses that are piling up.
In the decade of my forties, when I was mourning the death of my close friend and having a series of medical adventures, I also discovered I could write books. Almost nothing compares with the joy I find in writing. In that same decade, I was ordained as a Presbyterian minister and began to discover my professional path after being a homemaker for much of my twenties and thirties.
The big and “small” discoveries of midlife can have a profound impact. One of my friends took up ballroom dancing in her forties. Dancing makes her smile like nothing else in her life. Another friend started competing in triathlons and then found great satisfaction in helping other women train and develop their physical strength. Scrapbooking, making cards, quilting, gardening, painting and drawing, and writing poetry and fiction are some of the many creative endeavors that people discover at midlife.
Many people at midlife describe finding God in nature and in creative activities in whole new ways. They find their faith enriched and deepened. However, the juxtaposition of the losses and discoveries at midlife can be bewildering. The midlife journey of faith requires time. Time to ponder the losses and receive comfort from God, time to engage in new activities that bring joy and connection with God.
One of the bestselling Christian books on midlife is called Halftime. The author, Bob Buford, uses the metaphor of halftime in a football or basketball game to describe the kind of pause that is required at midlife. The pause is caused by the common drive to stop and look back on the first half of life and ask some questions. Did I spend my time wisely? Did I do the things God was calling me to do?
The halftime pause allows a person to look ahead as well.
- I’m going to have to start taking care of my body better. How can I best do that?
- My parents are going to need more of my time and attention. How can I make that work?
- My kids are getting ready to leave the nest. What will life be like for me without kids around?
- I’ve never had children and have passed the age of fertility, and I’m looking ahead at the rest of life knowing I’ll never be a parent. What kinds of relationships should I nurture in order to avoid being a lonely person in my old age?
And, most profoundly, where is God in all of this? The loss of certainty that accompanies midlife for many people often includes a loss of certainty about faith. The things we were certain about in early adulthood seem to have evolved into shades of gray. In the midst of uncertainty, what truths about God can I cling to? Can I find new ways of drawing near to God that will bring richness in the second half of life?
Take Some Time
I have talked with dozens of people about their midlife journeys, and almost every one of them talked about the drive to spend more time alone and more time in reflection. That drive makes sense. If a person is coping with a bewildering array of losses and discoveries, some time and space are necessary in order to discern where God’s hand is working in the midst of it all. If new spiritual paths will have to be found, some time and space will be necessary for experimentation and discovery.
People at midlife talked with me about finding God in nature in new ways. They talked about their faith moving from head to heart; many found joy and comfort in reading the variety of emotions expressed in the Psalms. They talked about visiting monasteries and retreat centers and learning to practice contemplative prayer and other spiritual disciplines. They talked about finding Benedictine and Celtic forms of spirituality helpful and enriching. They talked about building sabbath rest into their lives in new ways.
They talked about a journey of self-discovery that enabled them to affirm the way God had made them. This enabled them to make wiser choices about choosing commitments.
They talked about growing in their embrace of mystery, learning to hold onto what they know of God, but also being willing to rest in the deep reality that we simply can’t know everything. They talked about the growing significance of community. While spending more time alone, they also grew in finding the places of human connection that nurture faith for them.
For many people, the second half of life is rich and full. Slowing down at halftime to reflect and nurture new paths of discipleship builds a foundation for joy and fruitfulness in the later years of life. Mourning losses in God’s presence, watching for new discoveries, and being honest about questions are three of the valuable tasks of midlife that bring good fruit and deepened faith in the second half of life.