I Am Building: Sermon for May 7, 2023

There’s an ancient norm from the Bible that a full life is measured as “three score and ten years” (that’s 70 years in Shakespearean math) So, this stage of young adulthood builds to a mid-life crescendo. You could easily not know you when you crossed the threshold that began this stage and you may not know you crossed over for the stage of middle adulthood. In this first stage of adulthood, the lines are drawn loosely. It’s murky leaving adolescence and even murkier crossing the mid-point of life. You may only know you passed the signposts after you pass them.

What life markers help us imagine this stage of young adulthood? Here’s a sample checklist … Leaving home, establishing personal values, surviving serious stress, finishing formal education, landing a full-time job, balancing friendships, enriching life through spirituality, surviving failure, handling personal debt, discovering your identity, enjoying your mobility, sex (or not), lots of sex (or not), beginning a family (or not), embracing your own inner cynic, and exploring a balance in your materialism and spirituality. Welcome to the ambiguity of this first stage of adulthood!

Young adulthood is the transitional season between adolescence and middle age. At the end of this third decade in life (give or take a few years), we will be looking inquisitively over the horizon and the observing that the arc of life is cresting and even from the end of this stage one might get a sense of the early stages of decline.

Here’s a first-person report about this in-between stage of life:

“I am the one living in the betwixt and between, no longer this, not quite that. I can be serious-minded and dutiful, capable of critical thinking and dedicated to making my mark in the world. But I can also be silly, thoughtless, and irresponsible. I can make mistakes beyond my ability to assume responsibility. The wise old therapist cautions, ‘Make as many good decisions in a row,’ and off we go on the path littered with our many decisions. I am at the peak of my physical capabilities. I’m as athletic as I’ll ever be. I’m in as good a physical shape as I’ll ever be. My body will slowly crest the hill of adolescent development with the weight of time and physical maturity, and slowly I will become more sedentary from watching too much TV and ceasing in physical activity. My body will succumb to its own decline. For most of us, ‘This is as good as it gets.’ That may be true about my body but that’s not the only way to summarize my life because life itself can get better and better even as it gets harder and harder.”[1]

In fact, these three stages of adulthood by far form the longest stretch of life. If adolescence is the most intense stage along the way, adulthood is the most demanding. Not only is it long, it also involves so many different challenges simultaneously. This is what Gail Sheehy called concomitant growth – indicating her awareness that we are called to grow simultaneously on multiple fronts in ways we haven’t had to struggle prior to this stage: There’s work, vocation, one’s selfhood, and all manner of challenging relationships.

But the decade or so of young adulthood strangely doesn’t really begin on your twentieth birthday. In fact, the third decade ignores those who are age 20 and everyone thinks this decade begins at 21 (age of drinking / earlier the age to vote). Here’s a sample of how the greeting card business treats this anomaly[2]:

A lot of people stay home on their 21st birthday.
They’re called losers.
Go out and have a good one!

Everyone’s eagerly anticipating your 21st birthday …
your friends, your family, your coworkers,
the bartender, the bouncer, the police, the judge
Happy Birthday!

When we look back in time at young David in this first stage of adulthood, he’s living a big life. It’s difficult to plot all the drama of his life’s story in early adulthood, but some things stick out.

He navigated a testy relationship with King Saul.  In fact, David had early insight to the end of Saul’s reign because when David was a child, the prophet Samuel unexpectedly showed up at his father’s camp seeking to anoint the one who would replace Saul as the king. Notice Samuel was doing what God told him to do and he didn’t go to Saul to inquire what the king thought of this idea. So, from his boyhood, David had some idea that sometime in the future, he would take over after Saul stepped off the stage.

King Saul treated David abusively for years. Saul tried several times to kill David in fits of anger by hurling a javelin at him. The historian tells us of David’s loyalty to the king but we see Saul’s insecurity that led him to act unmercifully toward him. Some time later, Saul and his son were both killed on the field of battle and David went into pronounced mourning. That led the northern tribes of Israel to ask David to serve as their king as well and he navigated the consolidation of both the north and the south into one unified, powerful nation.

David led the merged armies of Israel & Judah, the armies of the Southern and Northern Kingdom against Jerusalem. Jerusalem had fended off multiple Israeli attacks in the past. David’s unified army defeated Jerusalem, a mid-sized village on the highest land and paved the way for designating Jerusalem as the city from which the unified nation could rule over the region as the crossroads of the world linking Europe to Africa to Asia. For a bright shining moment, Israel was one nation and was able to defend itself against any that would wish to sweep through the country to control this strategic crossroads. David led the unified nation to assert itself as a regional power in itself, capable of self-rule and confident of its ability to protect its borders.

Soon after, David moved the Ark of the Covenant from its temporary home and led the chorus of worshipers who were ecstatic that it was being carried “up to Jerusalem” in a parade beyond description, full of songs and cheers and a dancing young king who was so ecstatic in joy he was out of his mind dancing before the ark as it made its way to the city. David paid no mind to the fact that he was dancing exuberantly dressed only in a linen ephod, something perhaps like the wrappings akin to those worn by sumo wrestlers. Michal, Saul’s daughter and David’s wife, says she “watched from an upper floor window. And when she saw King David leaping and dancing before the Lord, she despised him in her heart.” She was embarrassed at his lack of decorum and felt it was beneath his dignity as king. In a sarcastic rebuke of her husband, Michal accused him of “going around half-naked in full view of the slave girls of his servants as any vulgar fellow would!”

David was undeterred by her criticism. In fact, he doubled down, telling her that it was the Lord he was dancing before, and he was quite willing to abase himself in the Lord’s presence: “I will celebrate before the Lord. I will become even more undignified than this, and I will be humiliated in my own eyes.”  David’s deep passion and exuberant worship are part of what make him so charismatic and relatable. He expressed his adoration of God in a variety of ways: through his music, his writings, and his public displays.

David was a king in his young adult stage. He was a vibrant young leader with fresh ideas and the passion about his life that made him dynamic. Richard Rohr suggests that the task of the first half of life is to create a proper container for one’s life and answer the first quintessential questions:  What makes me significant? How can I support myself? Who will go with me? The container is not an end in itself, but exists for the sake of your deeper and fullest life, which you largely do not know about yourself. The task of the second half of life is to find the contents this container was meant to hold and deliver.

Rohr probes the core issues of younger adults who are trying to piece together a direction in life and how they intend to relate to the key figures they’ve enlisted as friends, lovers, and cohorts. If one can make a path toward a meaningful challenge in life, one will begin to build the platform that will guide one to a complete life. This is the period in life when the right friends, the right adventurers can add meaning to this fragile, but exciting, life.

In this first stage of adulthood, time looks open-ended, but in reality, it is fractional and brief before it morphs into something unexpected. The end of young adulthood comes when it comes. Young Adulthood is not necessarily contained by a single decade and one faces concomitant growth challenges on multiple fronts on this journey to the middle of life.

King David was planting in the soil of who he was, the promise of who he would become. So do we. So do we.

© Rev. Dr. Keith D. Herron 2023

[1] Adapted from Keith Herron, Living a Narrative Life, 2019

[2] Donald Capps, The Decades of Life, A Guide to Human Development, Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008, 45