by Joanie Butman
At this point in life, I find myself sandwiched between budding adult children beginning their life’s journey and aging parents finishing theirs – both standing on the abyss of the unknown. Don’t you wish life came with a version of What to Expect When Your Expecting for every phase of life? As a young mom, I relied on child gurus, Louise Bates Ames and Francis Ilg, who authored a series of books addressing each of the “age” stages in childhood from one through fourteen. As a rookie, I found them extremely helpful. Now, I’m waiting for someone to publish a series on the 80 – 95-year-old and the 22 – 28-year-old stages. In addition to being nostalgic, the following lyrics from Stealers Wheel define how many of my peers describe their struggle being Stuck in the Middle.
Yes, I'm stuck in the middle with you
And I'm wondering what it is I should do
It's so hard to keep this smile from my face
Losing control, yeah, I'm all over the place
As a mid-fielder, what’s my role? Sadly, there’s no manual for the middle stage of life either. I think the best I can do is walk with them as Jesus does for us. He doesn’t fix all our issues, but He does provide strength and encouragement to travel through them with grace. We can do the same. Simply being present in the middle of their struggles is all we can offer. We can be a source of hope, quiet strength, peace and comfort. The Bible is an excellent manual if you need help on that front. One caveat – avoid quoting scripture as a way to eliminate someone else’s sorrow. There is such a thing as sacred silence. Stephen Davey warns, “the Bible is not a band-aide. Do not go around sticking that favorite verse of yours on suffering believers, believing it will somehow eliminate their pain…what the sufferer needs is the truth of scripture demonstrated in and through your life, as you minister to them with your presence.”*
The challenges for young adults are more complicated and daunting than when I was young. As much as we are tempted to step in and help, they have to navigate joining the adult world as a rite of passage. It isn’t simple or pleasant for anyone. There’s good reason the 20s has been referred to as the ‘birth canal.’ Though they are moving towards a bright future with endless possibility, it isn’t easy finding your place in this world. There is a lot of struggle involved, and uncertainty often leads to fear and anxiety. We can offer advice if asked, but ultimately their choices are theirs alone – as they should be. Offering unsolicited advice is just another form of criticism and will only undermine their confidence.
Seniors, however, are looking at only two possibilities that I know of: heaven or not. As believers, we know a bright future lies ahead, but the journey to our spiritual home isn’t always easy or pleasant, and comes with its own fear and anxiety. As many elderly Christians have expressed, we may know our destination but we don’t know what getting there will entail. There’s good reason Be Not Afraid is repeated so often in the Bible. (366 times. One for every day of the year and an extra for leap year). We are a fearful bunch, and the spiritual life involves a lot of mystery. What happens at the moment of death has to be the biggest one facing those approaching the end of life.
As caregivers, we can take care of physical logistics, easing the burden of daily responsibilities such as doctors’ visits, meals, household chores and managing medications or finances. We can ensure their safety and care, but the more difficult aspects of aging – like lack of purpose and mobility, feeling as if you’re a burden, witnessing your friends pass away on a regular basis, ongoing health issues and/or deteriorating mental capacity – can’t be fixed. It’s not in our power to eliminate their suffering, we can only share it as best we can.
Whether we call ourselves the ‘Oreo generation’ or the ‘sandwich generation’, we are definitely stuck in the middle. However, in both instances it’s the middle where the substance lies. I’ve been blessed to enjoy my parents for longer than most, and it’s an honor to be able to walk them home in any small way – even if it is just to ease my dad’s fears regarding his fading mental acumen. His main concern is that he’ll forget about God. My reply is always the same, “Maybe, but He’ll never forget about you!” Paradoxically, that’s the best encouragement I can offer my children as well. “No matter what you’re going through, God will be with you through it all.”
I’m certain there are plenty of books addressing the middle place. That’s all well and good, but the thing about life is you never really know what to expect. Life is unpredictable, and we’re all rookies needing the support of God and others to navigate it at any age. We can read books, but there is nothing more effective than Christ’s presence and the fellowship of others for strength and encouragement. Finally, in order for us to share the ministry of presence with others, we first have to experience it ourselves. Christ is ready and willing to offer His ministry of presence, but only if we’re open to inviting and receiving Him into our lives. If we want to experience His presence, we have to choose to offer Him ours.