Pilgrimage into the Last Third of Life:
Gateway 3: Doing Inner Work
Rev. Sandy Johnson
April 24, 2016
Dorothy Gale found herself thrust into a pilgrimage when she found that she had been dropped out of a tornado into the Land of Oz. We all know her familiar story don’t we? Dorothy began a pilgrimage from Munchkin land to Oz to see the Wizard, in order that she might find her heart’s desire, a way home. Along the journey she struck up friendships with a scarecrow, a tinman and a lion. All she wanted though, was to go home, back to Kansas, to return to her family, the ultimate culmination of her pilgrimage.
Jennifer, Chey and I have just returned from our own pilgrimage. We traveled to Israel to see the places where Jesus lived, healed, preached and taught and ultimately where he died and was resurrected. We traveled from Bethlehem and Jesus’ birthplace to the Galilee and followed his footsteps on the Gospel trail. We saw the place where Jesus fed 5000, and delivered the Sermon on the Mount. We reaffirmed our baptisms in the Jordan River and took a ride in a boat on the Sea of Galilee. Returning to Jerusalem we witnessed the sites where he was crucified, buried and resurrected.
All along the way I was especially eager to see Jesus, to feel his presence at these holy sites. I was surprised that I wasn’t overwhelmed with emotion at the sites as we visited them. About halfway through the trip as I was praying that I would feel Jesus more completely, God reminded me, that like Dorothy searching for the Wizard of Oz, the answer was within me.
You remember that Dorothy arrived at OZ and when she missed the opportunity to be taken home by the wizard in a hot air balloon, Glinda the Good Witch told her that she always had had the power to go home, it was within her. All she had to do was tap her ruby slippers together three times and the trip home was completed.
Being in Israel and seeking Jesus, God reminded me that Jesus wasn’t at these sites. The sites were certainly holy and sacred, but Jesus was not there. Jesus wasn’t there because he was inside of me, he lives in me and goes with me where ever I go. It was then that I realized that at these sites the feeling I had been feeling deep within me, a tightness in my chest, was in fact Jesus, making himself known. He was within me, not outside on the grounds of the sacred sites.
When we venture out on a pilgrimage we are often surprised at the events that happen along the way. We may have a preconceived notion about what it will be like, what we will learn, what things will inspire and also which will cause us to stumble. Ultimately all of us are on our own pilgrimage to God; to travel the road we call life, which will culminate with the entry into the heavenly kingdom at the close of our earthly existence.
This morning we are continuing on our study of life’s pilgrimage. Along the way we must stop and evaluate our path, consider those things that we are doing well, and those areas where we might wish to improve. We call this “doing inner work.” It is work that only we can do for ourselves, it is not about doing work for others, or having others evaluate us. It is an honest accounting of where we are along life’s journey and how well we are doing on the pilgrimage.
Many psychologists have found that there are two most powerful characteristics of “successful aging.” The first is to be willing to forgive and the second to have a strong sense of gratitude. What on earth could forgiveness and gratitude have to do with successful aging?
In Matthew 6:14-15 Jesus explains to us that our forgiveness of others is key to God’s forgiveness of our sins. It reads, “14 For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; 15 but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” Forgiveness is key to our own happiness and joy. “Buddha once said, “Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one who gets burned.” Forgiveness is not just a formality, but a state of mind. And that loving, accepting state of mind can lift you from a lot of burdens—mentally and physically.” We are reminded in the Lord’s Prayer that “our forgiveness hinges on our willingness to forgive others. Forgiveness is an important requirement for friendship with God and other people, as well as for our own good health. The act of forgiving undergirds our physical, emotional, social and spiritual health.”
Sometimes we think that if we forgive someone that means we condone what they did, or that we excuse their behavior. In fact, Webster’s dictionary says that to forgive is “to give up resentment or claim to requital [revenge] on account of an offense. To forgive completely we must willingly give up the wish that something bad will befall the offender.” I saw a bumper sticker once that said, “I miss my ex-husband, but my aim is improving!”
During our last third of life we must seek God and look “for evidence of God’s activity in our lives. That evidence has the power to transform our attitude from disappointment with self to ever-growing gratitude toward God, who is intimately involved with us.” When we can see God working in the small things we can trust and rest assured that God will be with us in the large things. “With this awareness of God’s activity will come a spirit of joyful anticipation and a sense of profound gratitude for all of life. Gratitude can’t help but flow into thankfulness and then into praise.” Seeking God in all we do, each day, will allow us to live a life of praise and honor to God’s glory.
During the first two thirds of our lives, we are busy with life’s challenges – growing and learning as children and young adults; then raising families and perusing our careers, take up most of our time. We come to the last third of our lives, our careers are finished and we at long last have the time to do the inner work that we must as we traverse the path toward God.
In Philippians 2:12, Paul said that we are to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” This should be the mantra of all of us as we enter our last third of life. It is time to evaluate and cultivate our inner lives of faith and to step out of our old habits and comfort zones and dare to imitate Christ, and grow or explore new experiences. We must fight the urge to put on the cruise control and sit back relaxing as we grow older. If we are to grow in grace, we must continue to do the deep and powerful inner work that bring us closer to Christ.
So how do we do this? There are several ways. First we must look for evidence of God in our daily activities. Remember the song “Have you Seen Jesus my Lord?” It reminds us that Jesus is all around us, seen in the rolling, thundering waves of the ocean, in the golden reds and yellows of a sunset, we see Jesus in the wispy clouds – especially those shaped like hearts. Jesus is seen in new life, in sweet new babies, holy and pure. Jesus is among us in our families, in our midst, the song says, we will see the face of Christ on one another. We don’t have to go to Israel to see Jesus. But we have to be looking or we will miss the encounters that God provides for us each day; proof that God is living within us.
After we open our eyes to see God in our midst, we must set down our negative behaviors that are causing us to stumble. We must deny our egos and be attentive to others’ needs over our own. We must avoid envy and pride. As we age and our bodies begin to show signs of aging, we may be tempted to compare ourselves to others. It’s hard not to notice that someone older is more physically capable than you are. Why are they more mobile than I am? It’s not fair that I am slowed down by arthritis, Parkinson’s, or Alzheimer’s. Envy can cause us to behave poorly toward others as we feel we have been robbed of our health in our later years.
I heard a story of two good friends, Helen and Emma. Helen was older by ten years and when she was in her mid-nineties her friend Emma said she no longer wished to be friends. Emma was unable to continue to spend time with Helen because “she envied her health and she couldn’t tolerate being around Helen because her vital presence reminded Emma of her own pain and dependency.” Emma’s reason was clear. “Helen’s perfect health and mobility, with no aches or pains while…Emma was riddled with pain and joint damage… that caused her to be wheelchair-bound and dependent on others,”also caused her to discontinue their friendship.
We must also avoid being prideful when we do age well. It might be easy to demonstrate a sense of subtle smugness when we compare ourselves to others who may not be aging as successfully. “Recently I overheard three men talking about their medications. Two of them needed significant numbers of meds to keep themselves alive and were reluctantly resigned to their plight. The third – the same age – needed no medication. I could hear the smug satisfaction and judgmental attitude in his voice when he boasted to the others, “I’ve never had to take any meds – it comes from doing all the right things. You know, exercise, healthy diet. If you guys had watched your weight instead of all those games on TV…”
Luke 14:11 says that, “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” I am here to tell you that the humbling will hurt. It’s best to avoid it altogether and set aside our prideful nature. This can happen also when we compare ourselves with our younger selves. When we ignore the reality that we are not able to do at 60 what we did at 20, we can get into a pickle. Our bus captain on our trip was a woman in her 60’s. She was overweight and out of shape. The last time she went to Israel she was able to walk and traverse the many steps and paths to get to the holy sites. This trip however was a different experience. She wept as she came to grips with the fact that her body was just not able to do what it had done in years past. The reality of aging was a bitter pill to swallow.
We must come to terms with ourselves and our tendency to default to envy and pride. We must caution against missing the gifts that God has given each of us and the unique joy of our specific and special lives. We each have our own lives that are not like anyone else’s. They are our own, given to us by God and we must not diminish that gift by being envious of others.
God calls us to be authentic, to demonstrate daily who God created us to be. We must put aside the masks that we hide behind, pretending to be someone we aren’t. When we do the difficult inner work, we will come to acknowledge our human selves and see ourselves as God sees us. In doing so we will see how God’s love draws us from our own egocentric selves to a self, centered in Christ. It is time to embrace the exciting freedom of being who we really are. Being vulnerable in our later years is freeing. 1 Corinthians 15:10 says, “But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me has not been in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them – though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.”
Sisters and brothers, doing the inner work will be challenging, but not impossible. When the inner work is done correctly, the light of Christ will shine through us and God’s goodness will be made known to all. Amen.
 Thibault, Jane Marie & Richard L. Morgan. Pilgrimage into the Last Third of Life. 7 Gateways to Spiritual Growth. Upper Room Books, Nashville. 2012. Page 51.
 http://inspiyr.com/health-benefits-of-forgiveness/ Accessed April 23, 2016.
 Ibid, page 48
 Ibid, Page 49
 Ibid, page 50-51
 Ibid, 51
 Ibid, Page 53
 Ibid, page 55