This article first appeared in the Spring/Summer 2005 edition of In Touch magazine. For reprint permission contact Mary Shamshoian.
By Mary Shamshoian
I turned forty this past year and, somehow, it happened sooner than I expected. My colleague, Dr. Delores Friesen, who recently welcomed her third grandchild, often refers to the women we teach in our seminary’s counseling department as “them,” and to herself and me as “us.” Sadly, I’ve come to suspect that she doesn’t mean “students and faculty” or “trainees and clinical supervisors,” but actually “young folk and wise women of a certain age.”
“Hold up a minute, Delores,” I want to cry out. “I still have one foot in 'them’.”
I had planned on recognizing and accepting middle age by the time I reached fifty-five but, being forced to acknowledge that I’ve not yet had a relative live to be one hundred and ten, I must admit that (God willing) I am officially in midlife.
Perhaps in view of this milestone I was recently asked, “What is God teaching you these days?” Upon reflection, it seems not so much that God is teaching me new things, but old things in new ways. At midlife God is teaching me, again, the meaning of grace.
The meaning of grace at midlife is different from grace for the young. Grace for the young is the assurance that there can be no mistake made, transgression committed, or act of foolishness indulged that can separate us from the love of God. It is the deep, profound understanding that, in Christ, I will never be unacceptable in God’s sight. It is the knowledge that I am “The Beloved.”
Throughout my study of the gospels I’ve often asked myself, “Why was this message of grace, this good news, so offensive to those who originally heard it, especially in the religious community?” I am now convinced that during his ministry years, Jesus was speaking to a people at midlife.
At midlife, the word grace takes on a bittersweet tone. Grace for the midlifer is a deeper realization that mistakes unmade, transgressions avoided, and foolishness denied do not merit us a special portion of God’s favor. It is the knowledge that God is not impressed by our righteousness. It is the recognition that I am not "The Belovedest". To read the gospel as a young person is to identify with a publican, a prodigal accepted, a harlot redeemed, a latecomer to the field paid a day’s wage. At midlife, I now know what it is to be a Pharisee, a resentful elder brother, a chastised Martha, a laborer who arrived at dawn.
I think that from this vantage point, I hear the gospel as Israel must have heard it and, like the religious in Jesus' day, I am struck by its contrariness to all our notions of what is fair. Where is the credit for our faithful service? This word can’t be the fulfillment of what we have prepared for. Similar midlife sentiments have, I’m sure, inspired any number of torrid love affairs or unnecessary sports car purchases.
Being too tired for an affair and too frugal for a Ferrari payment, I am left with only my bewilderment, challenged to look more deeply into the character of God. Like the disciples, as the crowd turns away, I say, “Where else am I to go? Who else has the words of life?”
I look again, and instead of a God who charges the faithful to guard grace and mete it out in careful portions to suitable recipients with plenty in reserve, I see with fresh eyes a God who runs to embrace a dissolute son, pays his workers without proportionality, commends the speculator instead of the careful saver, and lays down his life—not for his friends, as a man would—but for his enemies. And my questions are silenced by his unreasonable, indiscriminate, illogical, irresponsible, limitless, borderless, scandalous love.
As a youth, I saw the gulf between my wickedness and God’s goodness. In midlife I see the chasm between my petty “goodness” and the unfathomable greatness of my God. And in a new and hopefully deeper way, I see my need for God all the more.