If you were here Friday night, you know that at our ham and beans supper, this beautiful old meetinghouse was just filled with life. Just filled with it. Our fellowship room was buzzing with conversation and laughter for almost two solid hours. People from our own meeting, from other meetings, from the community, and from local organizations came to eat good food, visit with one another, and support our effort to raise the money we need to renovate the Christmas display we’ll put out front as part of the effort to bring beauty, joy, and life back to Seminary Park.
As I drove home that night, I was filled with that good tired feeling of having been a part of something wonderful. My heart was full. I felt sure that this wonderful old meeting house had been blessed by fulfilling its purpose of providing a space where connection and kindness can happen. This grand old structure was just built to house loving and light-filled events like that. Like our homes are built to support the love and connection we create inside their walls. Like our bodies are designed so we can love and respect that of God in us and connect and care for and reach out to and hug each other.
In each case, the outsides, the structures are important—meeting house, homes, and bodies. But like everything else in his material world, over time, structures age. The building needs repair. The home has to be fixed and remodeled. And the body—well, the body slows down, goes gray, shrinks a little, and sooner or later, starts to show its years.
There’s a reason people have been looking for the mythical “fountain of youth” since the Pharaohs first built the pyramids as a bid toward immortality. In the worldly realm, eternal youth is the greatest prize there is, sought by adventurers in legends of all types, mentioned in ancient writings as far back as the 5 century BCE. Early writings describe the fountain of youth is a natural spring that bubbles up healing waters, restoring anyone who drinks it or bathes in it back to youthful vitality and strength, filling them once again with life.
You may have heard that Ponce de Leon, a Spanish explorer who was part of Christopher Columbus’s crew, set off to find the fountain of youth, but historians have now debunked that long-held story. Instead, it turns out, he was a conquistador and quite an adept administrator, becoming the first governor of the new colony of Puerto Rico in the early 1500s. He wasn’t interested in chasing dreams; he was busy building structures, creating a new community, forming a new government. Most likely he needed to make good use of the wisdom and insight his mature experiences had given him.
In 1837, American writer Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote a short story called “Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment,” in which the main character—Dr. Heidegger—invites four friends, all elderly like himself, to participate in an experiment he’s designed. A friend of his, in Florida, has discovered the fountain of youth, he says, and he has a large carafe of the water he wants to share with them and note the results. He suggests that before they drink any of it, they think about what wisdom they might carry back to their younger selves so they won’t make the same impetuous mistakes again. He then demonstrates the properties of the water by taking a dried rose that has been pressed in a book—a rose his one-time fiancé had given him some 50 years before—and dropping it in the water.
Here’s how he describes what happened. “At first, it lay lightly on the surface of the fluid, appearing to imbibe none of its moisture. Soon, however, a singular change began to be visible. The crushed and dried petals stirred, and assumed a deepening tinge of crimson, as if the flower were reviving from a deathlike slumber; the slender stalk and twigs of foliage became green; and there was the rose of half a century, looking as fresh as when Sylvia Ward had first given it to him.”
The friends are skeptical at first, thinking it is some kind of magic trick. But then one by one, they drink the water, and instantly a change begins to come over them. First their expressions seem to brighten, and then their hair changes from gray to brown or gold, and they start to sit a little straighter. It is true–the water is restoring their youth. Their aches leave them and they stand—the one woman among them finds a mirror and begins adjusting her hat and checking her hair. They call for more water as the energy in the room builds and lifts. Dr. Heidegger, who had not tried any of the water himself, remains outside the excitement, simply observing his experiment.
In spite of the doctor’s suggestion that they hold on to their wisdom, in the end their passions overtake them and they all behave rather badly. They begin dancing and tousling, and then arguing and fighting over the attentions of the one female in the group. The scene ends with an unfortunate twist, the table tipped, the carafe broken, and the water from the fountain of youth spilled and spreading across the floor.
As the story ends, Dr. Heidegger feels affirmed in his decision not to try to regain his lost youth, while his four friends desperately make plans to travel to south Florida, where they hope to find the fountain for themselves so they never need be old again.
The irony is that there is a real fountain of youth and it is much closer than we realize. We don’t have to launch huge expeditions in order to find it. It’s not mythical or out of reach, and we can drink from it any time we choose. It’s with us all the time, bubbling up continually in our lives. One morning 10 years ago now, I was having breakfast with my dad at the Bob Evans in Fort Wayne. We did that once a month for the last couple of years of his life. On that day, he’d ordered his usual, corn mush, and had dribbled syrup down the front of his shirt, which was also typical. After we finished our meals, as we were sitting there drinking our coffee, he said, a little wistfully, “You know, Kath, this morning I got up, walked into the bathroom, looked in the mirror, and thought, ‘Who is that old man looking back at me?’ That’s not how I feel. On the inside, I feel the like I did in high school.”
I told him that’s one of the best proofs I know that spirit never ages. Love—the stuff of which we’re made–is eternal. It doesn’t age. The part of us that makes us us doesn’t keep track of years. Whatever chronological age we claim on the outside—that’s not who we truly are on the inside, the child of God in us, the spirit that is alive today, tomorrow, and for all time, in God’s realm. We can all feel it. The structure we’re housed in–these bones, the organs, these elbows, our skin—it’s our building, but it’s not the light inside. The light that shines through our eyes and radiates from our presence comes from a place that’s hid away with God, a bubbling, ever-refreshing fountain of spirit. Time never touches it.
In our Old Testament scripture today, we heard what Richard Foster calls “one of the most sweeping, eloquent, and profound [oracles] in all of the Old Testament.” God is telling his children he’s about to do something new—about to create a new heaven and a new earth. Even though much of the book of Isaiah up to that point has been full of God’s disappointment and upset with his children, now, the former things won’t even be remembered, he says, and life will be full of joy and delight.
Foster calls it striking that this passage is a promise of immediate communication between God and his children. It’s not about yesterday; it’s about right now. This new relationship isn’t tied to overcoming hardships of the past, finally obeying all those commandments, somehow apologizing enough for all the mistakes and bad choices we’ve made, or figuring out how to be as spiritual as we’re supposed to be. This is about the living connection between God and us—each of us—just exactly as it is, right here and now, at 11am on the 11th day of the 11th month. When we can stop and realize this connection is already here, we get glimpses of a new heaven. A new earth. A new start that is fresh, innocent, free of the past, untouched by time, unlimited by aging physical structures.
In many places in the book of Matthew, Jesus talks about the preciousness of children, their ability to hear with new ears and accept with open, trusting hearts. Innocent, in-the-moment presence is just part of being a child, at least until we get old enough that the voice of the ego begins to build structures for us to hide in. It is the adult way of trying to stay safe and it covers our innocence with distrust and cynicism. But for a season, as children, we live freely in the moment, responding to life as it comes with curiosity and humor, simplicity and eagerness.
In the passage Sherry read for us, Jesus brings a child before them when the disciples ask who is greatest in the kingdom of heaven. No doubt their egos were tousling over which of them was the best and brightest and earning the finest reward. Jesus shows them—in living color—how wrong their thinking is. Not only does Jesus honor the child’s simple, receptive trust over all their learning and trying and achieving, but he also shows that it’s important for us to bring our own innocent spirits front and center again, honoring that part of us that trusts and loves, that is open and eager to receive what God has to offer us next,
With this simple act, Jesus shows them that the kingdom of heaven isn’t something to be won by righteousness or good deeds or even keen discipleship. It’s something that is available, now, to any who, like children, are noticing what’s here, who have humble and innocent hearts that can feel gratitude for the uncountable blessings God is pouring out to us moment by moment.
That’s our fountain of youth. It’s the well-spring of God’s good and immediate presence, bubbling up continually in the here and now. It’s the force of life within us, refreshing us over and over again with love and light and hope. That’s what my dad felt but couldn’t see when he looked in the mirror that morning. That’s what the friends in Hawthorne’s story were missing when their excitement turned destructive. That’s what was going on at our bean supper, Friday night. Looking at us from the outside, we may have appeared to be a big mix of folks with different ages, backgrounds, and family histories. But on the inside, we are all God’s beloved children, just enjoying one another’s company and drinking in God’s blessings together.
So how old do you feel on the inside? 15? 25? 30? How about ageless? As we spend time with God and begin to take in all the blessings that pour our way, we discover we’re part of a never-ending stream of goodness that flows through every circumstance in our lives. No other fountain on earth—legendary or otherwise—can come close to that.
- OT Isaiah 65: 17-22
- NT Matthew 18: 1-5
- Hawthorne, Nathaniel. Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment: http://www.hawthorneinsalem.org/mirror_eldritch/dhe.html