One of the funny things about growing a little older is that it doesn’t always feel much different to the days of our youth. Sure, for me there are a few aches and pains after a game of basketball that I wouldn’t necessarily have expected in days gone by. My body doesn’t quite recover the way it used to.
But on the whole, I don’t feel so very different from 10, 15 or perhaps even 20 years ago. I’m still me. I still get caught by surprise when I have to behave like a grown up.
And then every so often I catch sight of a mirror, and am confronted with the fact that life marches on, hair recedes, and body shape changes. I don’t necessarily like any of those things, but in a sense there’s no point arguing with the passing of years.
“I remember her saying, ‘I look in the mirror and don’t want to look at myself — that’s not who I am’,” she says. “She preferred to look at herself in photographs when she was younger — ‘That’s me, not this wrinkly outer shell’.”
The thing is, lots of us are probably like that. I can definitely recognise it in myself.
And I think if we’re honest, we can recognise it in the church. We have this image in our mind, of youthful energy, of relevance, of the stereotypical sunday school classes overflowing with children. When we think of ourselves, that’s often the image we use, the image of health and vitality, of ourselves in another age.
We have a tendency to think of any sense of malaise as just a temporary blip on the radar, of not truly representing who we are. We’re small in number? It’s just a seasonal thing, we’ll bounce back. We’ve lost the young people? We just need to keep doing what we’ve always done, they’ll come back – everybody knows young people have a short attention span these days. They’ll be back.
It might not be a welcome thought, but what might we discover if we had a truly honest look in the mirror? If we were to humble ourselves to the reality of our state, what might we learn? What might the wrinkles reveal to us of where we’ve been and where we are?
As I look in the mirror and see who I am, I have several options. I can deny what I see, go with my inner conviction that I’m still 21 with all that entails (both positive and negative) and continue to live with that mismatch between inner sense and outer reality. Or I can take the somewhat fatalistic approach and accept what I see and submit to reality of who the mirror reveals I am – a man entering middle age and doomed to receding hair, spreading waist, failing fitness (and eyesight) and progressive deterioration.
Or somewhere in the middle, I can accept that while the mirror tells the truth of who I am now (at least in appearance), it can never determine who I will become. I can take the honest, humble look in the mirror as a starting point to plot a new journey, a new path, a new way forward. Of the three choices, this is the hardest. And potentially the most rewarding. And somewhere along the lines, my capacity to take this harder choice tells more about the inner me than what I see in the mirror.
What the mirror reveals as our curent reality will not be the tragedy for the church. Our choices in response to what we see will truly tell the story of our inner state. Will we live in denial? Or will we accept the truth and enter a state of palliative care?
Or are we ready to accept where we are, and plot a new journey? Enter a new stage of our life? Map out a new route on our pilgrimmage?
The mirror can help us – both by seeing who we are now, and by giving us a starting point for our next steps. Let us not be afraid to peer deeply into the mirror.