Sermon: Successful Aging (text & audio)

Virginia Ramig, Guest Speaker
The journey of aging begins at the moment of conception, so we all have expertise on the subject. I’ve asked some middle-aged and older UUCA members, and a few nonmembers, to share their concerns and discoveries about successful aging, and I’ve led a Covenant Group discussion on the subject. I’m sure you all join me in thanking the generous people who contributed time and thought to help others. I’d like to tell you their names, but there are way too many. I’ll mention only one: George, my husband, who contributed his ideas and support during the time of preparation.


The journey of aging begins at the moment of conception, so we all have expertise on the subject. I’ve asked some middle-aged and older UUCA members, and a few nonmembers, to share their concerns and discoveries about successful aging, and I’ve led a Covenant Group discussion on the subject. I’m sure you all join me in thanking the generous people who contributed time and thought to help others. I’d like to tell you their names, but there are way too many. I’ll mention only one: George, my husband, who contributed his ideas and support during the time of preparation.

A number of our thoughtful contributors spoke with great satisfaction about the perspective their years of experience have given them, finding it a powerful source of continuing personal and spiritual growth. They have little doubt that others find them more interesting because of this growth. Some have dropped illusions about themselves and are happy to see their lives more realistically. One spoke of her sense of deep fulfillment when she helps young people achieve a better understanding of aspects of life that puzzle them, particularly their personal relationships. Her perspective in middle age tells her not to shelter them from pain but to help them come out of it safely while learning something of value.

Several contributors pointed out the importance of warm, loving family relationships. “You have to get started early,” said one man, “maintaining good relationships with your siblings and then your children. Your self-discipline and consideration will pay well at the time and reward you even more as you get older.”

One woman advises, “Friendships are important. Don’t just wait for them to happen.   Look for people who share an interest with you. It may be playing tennis or cards, knitting, cooking, volunteering to help an organization, anything you enjoy. It will lead to finding congenial people.”

Some older contributors have a warning: There’s no getting around the fact that there will be differences in your life. Your friendships will feel different from those of your youth. Your body and brain will start having difficulties and deficiencies that can’t always be remedied. For the rest of your life you’ll have to make decisions based on increasingly limited abilities. Our contributors tell us that you may meet these changes with despair, or anger, or acceptance. Choose acceptance, they recommend—serene acceptance if possible, maybe even joyful acceptance.   However, you may need to remind yourself from time to time about how desirable a positive attitude is, and what helps you to renew it.

One woman told me about an aunt who had loved to paint ever since she was a child. Some of her happiest hours were those she spent creating colorful images on canvas. As she aged she developed macular degeneration, leaving her with only peripheral vision. She was not deterred; she continued painting. Then she had a stroke which kept her from using her right hand. As soon as she was up and around she began painting again, now using her left hand. She joked, “This will be my abstract period.” Nothing could keep her from her enjoyment of painting.

One of our contributors recommends an attitude of openness to mystery and wonder. “The older I get,” she says, “the more I find to wonder about. It’s like part of me keeps on growing. I don’t ever want to be finished!”

I find this to be so in my life.   For the past year or so I have ended my morning yoga sessions by gazing thoughtfully at a big maple tree. I have seen it in our back yard for twenty years. But now I find myself taking it in with my eyes. I feel myself as erect as it is, as capable of growth, as much a part of the interdependent web of all existence.   I focus on its roots, connected to the local skin of our planet—Western North Carolina red clay mixed with pebbles, flakes of mica, bits of decomposing plants. My feet become roots powerfully connected to the planet. I wonder whether in the universe around me there are other planets with other conscious entities living on them. Are they too wondering about the possibility of other planets?

Walt Whitman wrote a poem about the universe as an open road. Late in the poem he calls the universe “many roads for traveling souls”. We can hear it as his version of the journey of aging. Please turn to Reading No. 645, “Song of the Open Road”, in the gray hymnal. Pat will read the standard type and you can respond with the italic type.

One contributor of ideas about successful aging reminds us, “You can be amazed over and over by the same simple things that caught your attention as a child, but with an adult’s perspective. Let your heart be lifted when you watch the rising sun light up the clouds. Feel the power of the wind as it makes the trees bow, and the strength of the resisting wood.”

Some contributors said their feeling of success in aging comes mainly from their continued ability to be of service to other sentient beings—not just other human beings but animals too. Service makes these folks valuable and valued. Even those who need walkers or wheelchairs or are bedbound can continue serving, offering to people or to companion animals the unique understanding and abilities that come from their years of living. Their value doesn’t come from their vigor but from their loving generosity.

Some contributors have very practical advice about successful aging:

  • Choose a house or apartment that will help you maintain your independence as long as possible.
  • Live where there’s a mix of ages, not just older people.
  • Choose a physician whose views about continuing a painful life, or ending it, are the same as yours. If you need to choose a nursing facility, make that congruence of views one of your criteria.
  • Be aware that laws which allow self-ending of one’s life tend to lead to longer lives, as several studies have shown, since people are likely to put up with more discomfort when they know they may end their lives.
  • Be sure to have all your end-of-life documents filled out, signed, notarized if necessary, and placed where they are accessible to the people who will use them to follow your directives.

I have a story from my own life to illustrate that point.

Many years ago my father was admitted to a hospital because of pneumonia. My mother stayed with him for the three days that ensued before his death. She desperately wanted to hear whatever last words he might say to her, but because of an apparatus to deliver oxygen it was not possible for him to speak.

His passing was not only sad for her but also a great source of frustration. She was determined that her death would not be like that. So a few weeks after his funeral she made out her living will and gave me her health care power of attorney.

Twenty years later she needed the care of a nursing facility. My brother Bo and I accompanied her there, together with her end-of-life documents.

By that time she rarely spoke—it was just too much effort. As Bo and I were sitting with her she whispered, “I’m…too…tired.” As far as we know, those were her last words.

Later the head of the nursing staff said to Bo and me, “We’ll have to put your mother on supplementary oxygen and a feeding tube.”

I saw Bo snap to attention. “Those are forbidden in her living will,” he said.

The nurse replied sadly, “I’m sorry—the living will can take effect only when her condition is clearly terminal. We don’t know that right now. We are required to make every effort to keep her alive.”

I spoke up. “I have her health care power of attorney. I believe it gives me the right to see that our mother’s living will is followed.”

The nurse brightened. “Indeed it does! Now we can do what we know your mother wanted.”

Because my mother had planned so well, her life was allowed to ebb away at its own pace. She died that night with her hand in my brother’s. If she could have spoken, that’s what she would have asked for.

I find that to be successful aging right up to the last moment.

The Reverend Forrest Church, Unitarian Universalist minister, had this to say about dying:

“Death is not life’s goal, only life’s terminus. The goal is to live in such a way that our lives will prove worth dying for.”

What makes a life worth dying for? Dr. Church had an answer: “…the love we give away before we go.”

And that insight brings us to one last category of ideas on successful aging—love. Our love is a blessing to ourselves and to our life partners, families, friends, everyone we interact with. Love is a motive for service and a source of meaning in a life with less and less physical energy.

The Reverend Dr. Carter Heyward says, “Love is a choice—not simply, or necessarily, a rational choice, but rather a willingness to be present to others without pretense or guile.”

One contributor pointed out that a loving attitude makes us attractive to others, keeps us connected to the people and companion animals in our lives. Another said she sees people, especially children, who need to know they are worthy of love. She said, “I try to fill that gap in whatever way the circumstances allow.” One contributor said that in his experience, thinking about what makes another person lovable leads him to think about what makes him lovable. It’s a powerful boost to his belief in himself.

What I’ve told you in the past few minutes doesn’t nearly cover all the thoughts about successful aging that people gave me to pass along to you. Fortunately, the printed version of this sermon will have many of them added. Copies are available in the rack on the east wall of the foyer.

The poet Rainer Maria Rilke had this to say about aging:

I live my life in widening circles
That reach out across the world.
I may not ever complete the last one,
But I give myself to it.

We too can give ourselves to it. May we feel a sense of fulfillment in this widening and this giving.

Rev. Lisa Bovee-Kemper: There’s an Entire Denomination Out There


As I write this, I am on a plane headed to Portland, OR, for General
Assembly. By the time you read it, the annual conference of the Unitarian
Universalist Association will be in full swing, with approximately 5000 UUs
from across the country attending. GA is held each year at the end of June,
a week of workshops and worship, all centered around the main purpose of the
gathering, which is to conduct the business of the denomination. We as a
congregation operate under congregational polity – in which the membership
has a voice regarding what they want the organization to accomplish. The UUA
operates under the same principles, which means that we meet annually, each
congregation sending delegates to vote on the important business of the

For some of you, this is old news, you’ve been to GA or at least heard of
it. For others, it is new information. In either case, you may wonder why I
mention it, why it matters. One of the things that I observed when I went to
Boston last week with the Coming of Age group is that the trip, particularly
the visit to the UUA headquarters, gave the youth a clearer sense of being
connected to something larger. Most of the youth grew up at UUCA, and
therefore it was their only reference for a UU congregation – it felt like it
existed on its own. I imagine that it is also true for some of you that this
congregation, here in Asheville, is your first interaction with Unitarian
Universalism, and so you are not particularly aware of its connection to the
larger denomination.

It can be an important part of UU identity to know that there are other
people who worship together and lift up the same values as we do each week.
It matters that we are not alone. General Assembly is only one way to
accomplish this goal. There are other congregations nearby, as well as the
Cluster (which includes parts of North and South Carolina) and Region. We
also see UUs working together on regional and national campaigns with
Standing on the Side of Love. The Moral Monday action in Winston-Salem on
July 13 is one such event (see the enews FMI).

I invite you to explore ways to become involved with Unitarian Universalism
outside of the congregation — it can be a great complement to our work as a
congregation — sharing best practices and experiences around social justice
initiatives, or just getting to know like-minded people. Check the enews for
announcements, and let me know if you would like more information about any
of these possibilities in the year to come.

Joy Berry: Learning Together – An All Ages Sunday School Class?


I often hear parents talk about how much they would like to have more time with their kids. Sometimes, church can get in the way of that. I have a few families currently whose younger kids attend service with parents – which I think is great. And we know that children and other adults in their communities – like extended family, neighbors, and church friends – spend less time together than ever. Many grandparents and grandchildren live far apart, a fact we have come to accept in the post-modern world that is a relatively new phenomenon in human history. For the vast majority of human experience, young and old people, even those not directly related, have learned and lived side by side.

What are we missing when we don’t make space for multigenerational community? What could we gain by doing so?

We know that church is one of the last places in our culture where multigenerational community is still possible, with people of all ages under one roof at one time. Possible, I say, but that’s not always the case. Worship provides a powerful way to share in multigenerational community, and one way that is particularly good at reminding us we are a community, but the opportunity for interaction during worship is relatively low.

Here is another opportunity for sharing faith development together: a regular RE class that is multigenerational. The Unitarian Universalist Association has developed classes meant for children age eight and up and adults of all ages. Parents could attend with children, or not, and non-parent adults could also attend. Everyone would still have a chance to attend worship during the second service, so one wouldn’t have to miss the sermon. If offered at 9:15, it would expand the program offerings for 6th-12th grade youth, who currently only have classes offered at 11:15. All adults would have a background check, and teachers would be skilled in a multi-age learning atmosphere. Participants would still attend Time for All Ages and Multigenerational worship with the whole congregation.

Would this work for you or your family? Perhaps you would be interested in teaching? Classes under consideration are an eight-session “Wisdom from Hebrew Scriptures” course and an eight-session “Miracles” course, one after the other as a single, year-long class.

I believe a set of classes that explore a few seminal biblical stories from our Judeo-Christian heritage, followed by an exploration of wonder and awe – miracles, from our unique UU perspective – would be a compelling way to dig deeper into faith development with adults, parents and kids. And I believe we all benefit from spending time with our elders and with children.

There is so much to learn from each other, if we make time and space to be together in our faith community.

If such a class interests you, how likely would you be to attend on Sunday morning, at the first service? Do you have any thoughts/questions you’d like to share as I think about offering the class? See curricula descriptions below.

A miracle: An unexpected event or revelation that brings an outcome one has hoped for, perhaps yearned for, perhaps despaired of, perhaps never even imagined. Whatever one believes about how or why it occurs, responding to a miracle with wonder and awe is entirely appropriate.

This eight-session program invites a prolonged encounter with awe and wonder. Stories from our Unitarian Universalist Sources and hands-on activities engage a wide age span of participants to discern miracles, experience and express awe and wonder, and discover their own agency for miracle-making. Participants make a uniquely Unitarian Universalist inquiry—a religious search which simultaneously embraces the awesome truth of a miracle’s mystery and the “how and why” of rational explanation. Participants explore different kinds of miracles, from the awesome, ordered beauty of Earth and all life on it, to their own capacity to transform themselves and others to bring forth love and justice.

Wisdom from Hebrew Scriptures
This program offers multigenerational workshops based on eight stories from the Hebrew scriptures. Some of these stories are well-known and others less so. Some have been told to children in Sunday school classes and Hebrew school for generations; others will be unknown even to some adults. Some of those narratives fit well with contemporary Unitarian Universalist values and others are more challenging in both the theology and the values expressed. All of these stories offer wisdom that can help people of all ages growth in spiritual depth and understanding.

Sermon: Men–What Are They Good For? (text & audio)

Rev. Mark Ward, Lead Minister
Early in my reading for this sermon I chanced on a recent book with a provocative title that intrigued me: “The End of Men and the Rise of Women.” It’s not that the male gender is in danger of disappearing, Hanna Rosen says. Instead, she points to recent trends suggesting that the patterns of male dominance that have been central to, at least, Western culture for millennia are shifting. We live at a time, Rosen argues, when by any number of measures women are not only gaining on men but are moving ahead.



Adapted from Exodus 18:13-23

One day Moses sat as judge for the people, while the people stood around him from morning until evening. When Moses’ father-in-law, Jethro, saw all that he was doing for the people, he said, “Why do you sit alone, while all the people stand around you?” Moses said, “Because the people come to me to inquire of God. When they have a dispute, they come to me and I decide between one person and another.”

Moses’ father-in-law said, “What you are doing is not good. You will surely wear yourself out, both you and these people with you. For the task is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone. Now listen to me, you should look for others to help you, so they will bear this burden with you. Then you will be able to endure, and all these people will go to their home in peace.”

“The Gift” by Li-Young Lee


Early in my reading for this sermon I chanced on a recent book with a provocative title that intrigued me: “The End of Men and the Rise of Women.” It’s not that the male gender is in danger of disappearing, Hanna Rosen says. Instead, she points to recent trends suggesting that the patterns of male dominance that have been central to, at least, Western culture for millennia are shifting. We live at a time, Rosen argues, when by any number of measures women are not only gaining on men but are moving ahead. And, what’s especially troubling is that in many areas it’s not really a competition because men aren’t playing. They’ve checked out and instead are drifting: in and out of jobs, in and out of relationships. Many are “missing,” in a sense, from the mix.

An important factor in this, of course, is the economic transition we’ve been moving through. Since the turn of the century, millions of jobs, especially in manufacturing and related fields – areas that traditionally employed men – have disappeared.

For her book, Rosen visited Alexander City, Alabama, site of prosperous blue-collar jobs until early in this century when Berkshire Hathaway closed a premium maker of athletic wear that employed 7,000. The closing, she says, “ripped out the roots of the middle class,” and along with mass joblessness came a decline in marriage and an increase in divorce and single motherhood. Some men found jobs at the end of long commutes, others scrambled for this and that when they could find it, and others still quit looking and left the bread-winning to their wives.

And women did step up, moving into the few service jobs that opened up. Recently, the town elected its first woman mayor. The long-term effects of these losses, Rosen says, are being felt in the next generation. She interviews the school superintendent – a woman – who tells her that girls have taken to fighting, drug use is up among all students, and there’s a rash of unintended pregnancies. At the same time, every candidate for election to student government is a girl, and of the students taking part in a city-funded program to prepare them for future careers, 65% are girls. “I’m not sure where the males go or what happens to them” the superintendent told Rosen. “I think they’re just not as motivated.” It seems to be evidence, Rosen says, of a transition time for men. But what’s unclear is what the transition is to.

It’s a pattern that we see played out among more affluent men, too. Sociologist Michael Kimmel describes the evolution of something he calls “Guyland” that has emerged among white, middle class men. They move into communal housing with college buddies, work dead end jobs, devote many hours to the bar scene and hook up with women but steer clear of lasting relationships.

At the same time, the long-term disparity in the achievement of men and women at higher levels of the academic ladder is evening out and even shifting in the other direction. In the U.S., for example, women now earn 60% of bachelor’s and master’s degrees and around half of all PhDs as well as law, medical, and business degrees.

Of course, just because women have made gains doesn’t change that fact that the power differential in our culture remains heavily skewed in favor men. That enormous social overburden that has been described as “the patriarchy” – all the privileges and unspoken preferences that attach to men simply by virtue of their gender – is as strong as ever, though it, too, is shifting and evolving. And the process of change brings pain to men as well as women along the way.

We remember, after all, that each of us growing up didn’t invent the notion of what it means to be a man or a woman. We absorbed it from everything around us, from our families and communities, from the TV shows and movies we watched. And to varying degrees each of us struggled with the sex roles we were assigned with varying degrees of discomfort.

The excerpt from Exodus you heard earlier reminds me of one of the most enduring expectations that I know I absorbed early in life: that as a man I would be expected to be a long-suffering servant who, like Moses in that passage, would take on an unending stream of work uncomplainingly, even to the point of exhaustion.

It was something my father modeled for me with 60-hour weeks as a psychiatrist. I recognize it in my own work patterns – and I’m left to wonder how many others are afflicted with this notion that overworking not only serves society but somehow proves our manhood. How few of us listen to the Jethros in our lives who try tell us to slow down and share the load for the sake of our own endurance and, even more important, for the very peace of the world.

But behind all these social constructions there remains the question: Is there an essential essence to being a man, and is there a gift to be found there as well?

To look at the essence of manhood we might begin with biology. As a rule, maleness requires that the bearer have a Y chromosome that at about six weeks of gestation causes the body to be flooded with the male hormone, testosterone. Most such children head down the path to maleness, genitalia and all. I say most, because there can be variations on that theme. Another flood in the early teens completes the process with secondary sex characteristics like facial hair and the rest. Of course, having the standard male genitalia says nothing about more complicated things like an individual’s sexual orientation, or even necessarily how one might eventually identify one’s gender, as the story of Caitlin Jenner amply demonstrates.

The biology of sex and gender, we have learned in recent years, is far more complex than many of us had ever imagined. But still, biology matters. Let’s look at testosterone. Both men and women produce testosterone, but men produce much more – often 10 times as much. High testosterone correlates with the behavioral traits that stereotypes would lead you to expect: self-confidence, competitiveness, strength, self-confidence, sexual drive. But it’s not a constant thing. Levels of testosterone in the body change in response to changing circumstances, such as physical confrontations or arousing situations.

High testosterone levels are not necessarily linked to violence, but they can be a risk factor. At those times, men are more likely to be reactive and impulsive and less likely to be thoughtful and deliberative. That may work fine in action films, but day to day in our work lives and interacting with others we need our wits about us, and in relationship we need to refine the skills that lead to lasting commitments not just quick thrills. It tends to be after those moments of testosterone-fueled rage or sexual acting out that you hear comments that echo our topic today: Ugh! Men: what are they good for?

It’s worth remembering, though, that part of the advantage that testosterone can confer is strength not just for quick action but also for endurance. We do, after all, have a choice in how we respond. The spiritual that we began with, “We Are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder,” makes that point. It is said to have been a song that African-American slaves sang to encourage each other to stick it out in the hope that they would be freed someday.

It’s a hymn to endurance. The steep and rugged road to freedom was a challenge that they saw their work preparing them for, and each stroke, each hammer blow, each step strengthened them further. “We are climbing on.”

There are many stories that remind us of such lessons. Back in the 70s and 80s a men’s movement arose in the U.S. that looked to ancient fables for guidance on finding a more fulfilling and resonant vision of manhood than our culture seemed to provide. Perhaps the most famous of these was the story of “Iron John,” a Western European coming-of-age tale raised up by the poet Robert Bly.

“Iron John” tells of a boy who comes upon a mythical wild man in the woods who by assigning one task after another encourages the boy to learn disciplines that cultivate courage, endurance and strength that leads the boy to become a mature, confident and compassionate man.

Bly argued that a number of helpful practices that the tale pointed to, such as male mentoring, have been largely lost in our culture and encouraged men to look for ways to reinstate them in the coming-of-age process.

For a time, the archetypes in these stories became the center of retreats, full of dancing and chanting and drumming around campfires. In recent years, though, much of this “men’s movement” has faded from view.

Looking back, we can see that as a teaching tool “Iron John” had its limitations and that the way that Bly and others interpreted the stories often reinforced traditional gender roles. They also provided no way of framing anything but the heterosexual experience.

Still, they served a role by opening the conversation into a way to understand gender identity not simply as a fact of biology but also as a resource for our own awakening, a gift that shapes who we will be and what we will give to the world.

We men look to the wisdom of millennia that tells us that it is not our impulsive energy but our enduring strength that holds whatever greatness we are to achieve. It is not our power over but our steadfast love that will win what is worth keeping.

The “gift” that Li-Young Lee both receives and dispenses in the poem that you heard earlier is just such love, a gift that inspires courage, which is to say strength of heart, in those who receive it. And this may be the greatest gift that men have to give: a gift given from strength and confidence that affirms the ultimate worth and the essential capacity of others.

Hanna Rosen closes her book with a few glimmers of hope among the lost and drifting men she was following. She tells about reconnecting with Calvin, the boyfriend of a young woman she’d met in a Virginia beach town. The two had had a child together, but Calvin had drifted off and the woman, Bethenney, was fine to let him go. She was getting on with her life, studying for a nursing degree and raising her daughter. Calvin just couldn’t seem to find anything.

Checking back with Calvin some months later, Rosen learns that he is recovering from a car wreck that got him thinking about what he wanted from life. “Do I really want to spend the last days of my life smashed between two guys in the front seat of a truck?” he said.

He tells Rosen that he remembers back to when he was 11 and an uncle who was sick came to live with his family. He recalls that after the uncle recovered he started paying attention to Calvin, taking him on fishing trips and teaching him carpentry. The experience, she says, reminded him how just a little care could do a lot to mend people and relationships.

He tells her that he finally got up the nerve to get his papers together to apply to a local college, and how terrifying he found it to walk it into the admission office.

But he did it. And Rosen says Calvin told her that when he crossed the threshold of that office, “I also got this little thrill: like I’m finally doing it.”

John Bates: Come ‘Round Right


‘…Come ‘round right’ is the last line of the Shaker song ‘Simple Gifts’ that you’ve probably sung at service. It’s a short song with an easy melody that has become part of the Old American Songs for voice and piano and now widely used. For me, those words seem to capture where the Congregation is here at the end of the year. Lots has been happening in the Congregation over the past several years – buying 23 Edwin, hiring new staff and transforming our Lifespan Religious Education program, calling a second minister, an all-member combined annual and capital campaign. These were capped by a wonderful music service and the best attended annual meeting I can remember. And as I helped clean up after the annual meeting, I had this feeling of peace and accomplishment. That spirit seemed to be all throughout the campus – we had come ‘round right. We’re in a groove…on a roll…but that Shaker song stuck with me as best capturing the essence. It’s a nice place to be and good to enjoy the moment.

I’m still working on getting into the role of President and doing more UU thinking. I’m looking forward to going to General Assembly (GA) in Portland, Oregon, later this month to really get me in a UU mindset. Mara and I are going to take a few days before and be tourists in Portland. The Board discussed some of the major themes we want to discuss at our June meeting, but we need to work on them some more so I’m looking to GA for some inspiration. I floated the idea of a mid-term strategic planning where we could again engage the congregation. And never one to miss an opportunity for a bad pun, I thought we might call a 5-year plan a ‘20/20 vision’ (groan…). So, let me know your thoughts.