In retrospect, several major hurdles loomed before me as I lingered for a long time on my familiar evangelical bank of the
I had a fear of CHANGE! (metathesiophobia)
A close second obstacle was my treasured, lifelong reputation in evangelical ministry overseas and in this country. Approaching eighty, I had come to the chronological summit of my life where I thought such changes in spiritual matters were next to impossible—or at least improbable.
I identified with the rich young ruler, and the rich old ruler both of whom came to Jesus seeking deeper eternal truths and experience.
Jesus demanded of the rich, young ruler—“You’ve done well. But now sell all! Come follow Me…” In contrast, I was old now, but I was afraid Jesus was still asking me to do the same thing. Jesus cautioned us to count the cost. Would I be willing, if necessary, to sell all that I had, all my “treasures” of reputation to obtain the field where the Pearl of Great Price was buried, as Jesus taught in one of His parables? Would I still pursue the spiritual fullness that beckoned me, if it turned up in an unexpected place?
Both of my obstacles were epitomized by the rich old ruler, Nicodemus, who came to Jesus secretly after dark as recorded in John chapter three. Age and status and reputation were doubtless also in the forefront of his thoughts, consequently he could not risk asking his questions in public by daylight. For the same reasons I was conducting my search clandestinely.
It seemed to Nicodemus that Jesus was setting up a ridiculous scenario. He asked whether a man when he is old could reverse the natural course of life and “return to his mother’s womb and be born over again.” How could Jesus expect a seasoned, mature person, especially one in religious leadership, who has earned all the benefits of age and experience and is obviously full of wisdom, to discard it all and start over like a newborn baby?
Nicodemus was a Pharisee with a reputation he doubtless deserved. John made a point to record that he was a religious leader, a member of the supreme Jewish council, the Sanhedrin. In Mark 8:31 Jesus foretold that He “must suffer greatly and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes and be killed.” (This was fulfilled in Mark 14:53.) Those three categories made up the seventy-one members of the Sanhedrin which was presided over by the high priest. Nicodemus apparently held a high position in that prestigious religious body. He would be taking an even greater reputation risk than the rich young ruler if he were to follow Jesus.
If God called me to be a Catholic this late in life, could I make such drastic changes? Could I risk being responsible for possibly redirecting the Christian destiny of my descendants beyond my lifetime? Would I disillusion and confuse my family, my co-workers in ministry, my evangelical friends with such an unexpected late switch of my faith context although it was certainly still within the Body of Christ?
At the very least, heads might shake sadly with suspicion and pity that senility had finally overtaken me, that I might not be accountable for my deteriorating thought processes!
Some might think that I had been brainwashed by too much study in the wrong direction. People usually take brainwashing in a negative sense. The way I viewed it was that my brain was being washed but it was to cleanse me from my prejudices, misunderstandings, and misinformation.
I was indulging in “what ifs” and crossing bridges before I came to them, but I perceived them as realities.
It was possible that my family, relatives, and friends might not even care about any theological matters with which I was wrestling. What I experienced as an earthquake in my faith orientation, they might shrug off as a slight tremor of little consequence. Why take it so seriously? How could I expect them to understand all the twists and turns of my theological journey and why it was such a spiritual trauma for me?
Evaluating the Nicodemus Factor
Dietrich Von Hildebrand (1889-1977) was a German Catholic philosopher and theologian whom the late Pope John Paul II called “one of the great ethicists of the twentieth century.” He explored the problem of one’s ability to change in mature years in his book Transformation in Christ (Longmans, 1948). Age is often associated with resistance to change, a desire to settle in one’s comfort zone, retire from active life, and coast quietly to a finish. To the elderly, security and status quo assume great importance. They covet a circle of like-minded friends. Rocking boats is not a hobby they are inclined to pursue. The elderly have ingrained lifetime beliefs and habits that appear to be chiseled in stone. They’ve earned their reputation and guard it tenaciously; they are too tired to row upstream; they don’t want their world turned upside down.
Von Hildebrand noted that love of change and daring is the natural gift of youth, but when men become older, their characters and peculiarities solidify. In older years we are less receptive to fresh stimuli, and it is more difficult to revise our mentality and re-educate ourselves. We become rigid, and the natural readiness to change diminishes. We are happy to settle down in the familiar. Von Hildebrand says that an aging person usually feels that he has the right “to be no longer a pupil or an apprentice but a master.”
In contrast, “Supernatural readiness to change should grow with age” That is a surprising optimistic declaration!
Von Hildebrand says that the supernatural picture will be different, and an inverse law will appear; receptiveness toward Christ will tend not to vanish but to increase as a man grows into the later seasons of life. Incidentals recede into the background, and the most important aspects of life become clearer. The restlessness of youth lessens and “a steady orientation toward the essential and decisive becomes dominant.”
He maintained that those advancing in age move toward supernatural simplicity; as we approach the gates of eternity, we understand ‘the one thing necessary.’ Those mature in years have a greater yearning for the depths of intimacy with Christ. He explained that this leads to a supernatural readiness to change, to become a new man with a willingness to crucify the old self.
That insight gave me a new, positive perspective on the possibility of spiritual change in mature years with which I was struggling! What is naturally improbable in mature years is supernaturally normal and an action of the Holy Spirit toward transforming us into the image of Christ.
So? The late-in-life major faith paradigm shift and seemingly drastic change I was facing was neither strange nor impossible in Christ! Certainly that wonderful change toward more spiritual fullness “in The Land of MORE” was nothing to fear! It was to joyfully embrace!
(The above is an excerpt from Chapter 6 of Leona’s book-in-progress,
JOURNEY TO THE LAND OF MORE). You may request the entire chapter e-mailed to you as an attachment by noting that in a comment of this post.