Another Country

Universalist Unitarian Church of Santa Paula

Rev. Maddie Sifantus

July 12, 2022

PRAYER                 Living Brings Us Closer to Dying       Helen Lutton Cohen

Each moment of our living brings us closer to our dying.

Young or old, the knowledge of life’s end is with us, growing more real, more familiar through the experiences of time and of loss.

Yet what is to keep us from frittering away what time is left to us,
Making it almost a matter of indifference that we have passed this way?

How are we to grasp the urgency of life, to know and seize the moment that will lift us out of mere survival into that realm where someone after us will say “she truly lived.”

Or is true living a day-by-day thing, the accumulation of many tiny acts that all-together say “he lived”?

Either path will do.

Sudden, or almost imperceptible,

They will lead us beyond self-preoccupation and protection to the safe ground of understanding and acceptance.

We will come to know within ourselves the satisfaction and peace of having lived with consciousness and purpose.

We will know the joy of having given ourselves to life. Amen.

READING            Otherwise                                            Jane Kenyon

I got out of bed
on two strong legs.
It might have been
otherwise. I ate
cereal, sweet
milk, ripe, flawless
peach. It might
have been otherwise.
I took the dog uphill
to the birchwood.
All morning I did
the work I love.
At noon I lay down
with my mate. It might
have been otherwise.
We ate dinner together
at a table with silver
candlesticks. It might
have been otherwise.
I slept in a bed
in a room with paintings
on the walls, and
planned another day
just like this day.
But one day, I know,
it will be otherwise.

SERMON            Another Country                                 Rev. Maddie Sifantus

Welcome to another country, a terrain we are traversing together in our service today. In many ways these last two plus years have seemed like another country, a foreign soil rather than the one we have been used to living in, one we had no idea we would visit. It has been a country which has had no guidebook, no travel channel videos to orient us, and no tour directors to plan for us. It has been every person for themselves, but with great appreciation for our congregation which have kept us connected.

I have found that this time is not unlike what is in store for us, those of us of whatever age, when we think ahead or move towards our later years, what my father in law in France used to talk about as “le troisième âge”—the third age—and to that final departure. We are taking a peak across the border this morning into the time when things will be “Otherwise”, as the late Jane Kenyon wrote in my one my favorite, touchstone poems. Jane Kenyon was Poet Laureate in New Hampshire at the time of her untimely death at 47 years old. She never made it to le troisième âge.

In Otherwise, a posthumous collection containing twenty poems written just prior to her death, Kenyon “chronicles the uncertainty of living as culpable, temporary creatures,” according to Nation contributor Emily Gordon. The main word there is “temporary”. One day it will be “otherwise”, no matter how we humans often live as though somehow we didn’t know that.

Lives can have many cycles. I have been serving congregations for over 13 years now but before that I was a UU Community minister, first as a lay person living my faith in the world beyond the walls of the congregation and later as ordained clergy, for some years continuing my work leading the non-profit I had founded in 1988 and then making the transition from community ministry to parish ministry, but still oriented to what is happening beyond our Sanctuary walls, collaborating with community partners and finding ways to bring our liberal faith into the community. In fact I was the Affiliate Community Minister at First Parish in Wayland from when I was ordained by them jointly with the Golden Tones elder chorus until I moved here to serve you in January 2015, just as Rev. Dr. Betty Stapleford is our Affiliate Community Minister for Social Justice.

Lives can have many cycles, especially if you live long enough; I am sure many of you have had similar experiences in your own life. Growing up I was drawn to music and art. I figured out very early on that I was a singer and would often sit drawing or painting, all the while singing. I had classical music training, began performing professionally by the end of high school, and went off to Rhode Island School of Design, thinking to be a fashion designer at that time…but music won out and I toured in rock bands for a number of years. In fact I still sing with one of my longtime bands when I am back on the East Coast as well as perform with the Rowan Brothers as I will in August.

The next cycle brought me back to singing classical music, raising my son and finding Unitarian Universalism…bringing along my other music as I worked in recording studios, singing back up on people’s records, jingles, and on movie soundtracks like Dick Tracy and The Secret of Roan Inish. I became the Youth Director of First Parish in Wayland during this cycle and was also singing in nursing homes with my mother who had been a concert pianist in her younger days. After 7 years of what I came to think of as youth ministry, I founded in my thirties an elder chorus, what became my life’s work and eventually sent me into professional ministry with music being the through line. That chorus was named the Golden Tones.

So a bit of more if this story today: In 1988 I founded the Golden Tones with a vision of bringing together the arts, faith, school and aging communities. This small group of enthusiastic music lovers meeting to sing the old, favorite songs of their younger years grew into an extremely active group of over sixty performing elders with sixty performances a year at all manner of nursing homes, assisted living and other senior residences, community events, senior club and AARP meetings, and faith communities. When I would do a service in a congregation on aging or death and dying, a number of the Golden Tones came along to sing and be a living picture of what I was talking about—in the picture is worth a thousand words department—and more fun too! They even performed with me at General Assembly in Boston in 2003 at an event sponsored by the UU Society of Community Ministries, of which I was co-president at the time.

Music was central to my work with elders and led me to new exploration as the years with the Golden Tones passed, and I learned the stories of so many. I became fascinated with the issues, needs, and opportunities of the elder years—at first from the point of view of what I was doing—what we were doing together, co-creation if you will—but then in a broader way. The excitement, joy, and sense of curiosity and adventure I felt with the members of the Golden Tones contrasted markedly with the messages about aging I received in our culture. On this path I also became interested in the spiritual implications of aging. I came to understand that “the spiritual needs of {elders} really are those of every person, writ large:  the need for identity, meaning, love and wisdom… Basic needs do not change with age, but they are often intensified.”[i]

I read widely in interdisciplinary literature about aging. When I first heard the title of Jimmy Carter’s book The Virtues of Aging, I thought- that’s an interesting title! Carter writes on “the worry about the physical aspects of aging and the prejudice that exists toward elder(s)” known as ageism which is similar to racism, sexism or homophobia. When Carter mentioned the title of his book to a few people, “most of them responded, ‘Virtues? What could possibly be good about being old?’” As he says, “the most obvious answer, of course, is to consider the alternative to aging!”[ii] But, as he recounts his discussions with his wife, Roslyn on the meaning of the word virtue, they “decided that both basic definitions of the word were applicable: ‘a particularly beneficial advantage’ and ‘an inherent quality that is admirable.’ In other words, the virtues of aging include both the blessings that come to us as we grow older and what we have to offer that might be beneficial to others.”[iii]

More cycles went on for me as my son graduated from high school and went off to college, I was ordained to UU Ministry and went back to the seminary I had graduated from to be the advisor to the UU students there, a role I filled for ten years before another cycle started with my transition to parish ministry and serving on the Ministerial Fellowship Committee, our credentialing board…another cycle that went on for 8 years. I rotated off last year. And during that time another cycle began when I left Massachusetts where I had lived my whole life to move here to Santa Paula. How many cycles have you had in your life? How many more will you have?

There has been increasing news over the years about the graying of America. For many years I attended the national meeting of the American Society in Aging as I did this past April. One year the  theme was the Rhythms of Life, and I had the wonderful opportunity to hear in person former President Jimmy Carter who had recently published the book I mentioned before. In it Carter details how the life expectancy at birth for Americans in most of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was in the low forties. The twentieth century brought better medical treatment and vaccines that prevent many formerly fatal diseases[iv] Folks are living longer…a lot longer! These changing demographics have many implications for those who work with elders, for our churches and synagogues, and for society as a whole.[v] Not to mention us as individuals.

Doris Grumbach, in her wonderful memoir of her seventieth year, Coming Into the End Zone,  quotes the baseball pitcher, Satchel Paige who asks:  “How old would you be if you didn’t know how old you was?” We might ask, “What is so-called successful aging?” What is this new country? I believe it is important not to put our own preconceived ideas onto what is appropriate behavior for elders, including if we are an elder our self. Who is deciding what is successful aging, anyway?    It has been said that “Any definition of successful aging actually turns out to be, at least in part, evidence of the values of the person offering the definition.”[vi] There are many different countries. We each have to find our own.

Theologian Howard Thurman has said that “age is a matter of perspective, attitude, and digestion. There are many people who are young in years but old in reactions, who have lost their resiliency and are already exhausted. Others who are full of years chronologically, but continue to be alert, sensitive, and elastic.”[1] When you think of it, our aging process really begins from the moment we are born. But I guess that for me, the most important thing to keep in mind is that each older person is an individual, in UU terms: the inherent worth and dignity of each individual.  Each person has a lifetime of successes and failures, and it is important not to generalize.

When Carter was considering what successful aging might be, he was most attracted to a study done by the MacArthur Foundation. This study concluded that the three indicators of successful aging are (1) avoiding disease and disability, (2) maintaining mental and physical function, and (3) continuing engagement with life.[vii] Those sound pretty good for any age group to me! Of course, avoiding disease and disability can fall into that easier said than done category. As a Golden Tones member once told me: “The Golden Years they ain’t so golden!” However, if we can stay engaged in living, engaged in relationships and part of a community, such as this one we are in this morning, we can find the resources, as Carter says, to make “successful adjustment to the changing conditions we have to face… This engagement… will inevitably involve us with responsibilities, challenges, difficulties, and… pain.”[viii] The losses we all experience as we go through life and into our final years are great. But our continued engagement with others can help us make meaning of our lives. Having work to do and enjoyable activities and hobbies allows us self-respect and a sense of control. We still have so much to give in our elder years.

And sometimes what we are called to is reflection and spaciousness. Doris Grumbach quotes a friend in her book The Pleasure of Their Company who reflected on her aging: “So I’ve slowed down, reluctantly at first, then time began to stretch out and it is just lovely to sit in my lazy-girl chair, animals on me or nearby, in a more or less comatose state. There are small breaks, like a meal, a phone call, dogs to let out, then bring them in, a call of nature (too damn often), a snooze, a book (for effect), perhaps a pony of Kahlua…things that used to drive me crazy have lost importance. I have learned how happy I can be just keeping warm and my feet up…” And she concluded, “I am the luckiest woman in the world. What an incredible century. What a wild and woolly country. What a god-awful world.”[ix]


Theologian Howard Thurman reflects: “I will sing a new song. As difficult as it is, I must learn the new song that is capable of meeting the new need. I must fashion new words born of all the new growth of my life, my mind, and my spirit. I must prepare for new melodies that have never been mine before.”[2]

We need to write our own guidebook to this new country. I found that a group like the Golden Tones contributes greatly to the life of the older person, helping to fulfill many different and perhaps new needs. One of the most important is the opportunity for socialization and a place to make new friends at a time of life when it becomes much hard to do so.

I used music but any of the arts would work. While I was involved with the Creativity and Aging movement, I knew people using dance like the Liz Lerman Dance Exchange’s Dancers of the Third Age and a theater company called The Seasoned Performers. What can we do to think about and provide for the needs of this new country? One important way is finding a way for folks to listen and be listened to. In our congregations I would suggest starting a small group with a focus on sharing experiences on growing older. Doug Manning, a minister from Oklahoma City I got to know after 9/11 when I was training to be a Funeral Celebrant wrote in his most recent book The Back Nine, “Perhaps the church could offer more events that cross aging barriers. In the days before we did so much age grading there were many chances for the ages to mix….We either change or we ossify into a locked in world of nothing new.”[3] And especially for solo agers who need to create a new life after a death or divorce or just age in place or move to a new home, activities like a congregational group that meets regularly can have powerful results.

My hope for us as Unitarian Universalists is that we can take this opportunity and go with it, coming to terms with ageism in our communities and even in the walls of our churches. As a denomination we do not have an office of ministry to elders or a place where ageism and age issues are regularly discussed. It is rare that there is any programming about aging at General Assembly. I know that we Unitarian Universalists are a feisty and independent sort. But all of us, hopefully, will one day reach that third age of life. Some among us are there. I believe in the importance of congregations’ understanding issues affecting older adults. I also believe in our opportunity to rejoice in our multi-generational communities which offer the possibility to let all of our lights shine, from the youngest to the oldest. May we let all the lights shine. May we each find meaning until the very last days. May it be so. Blessed be and Amen.

CLOSING HYMN 191   Now I Recall My Childhood

Now I recall my childhood when the sun
burst to my bedside with the day’s surprise;
faith in the marvelous bloomed anew each dawn,
flowers bursting fresh within my heart each day.


Then looking on the world with simple joy,
on insects, birds, and beasts, and common weeds,
the grass and clouds had fullest wealth of awe;
my mother’s voice gave meaning to the stars.


Now when I turn to think of coming death,
I find life’s song in starsongs of the night,
in rise of curtains and new morning light,
in life reborn in fresh surprise of love.

  Words, Rabindranath Tagore; Music, Alfred Morton Smith

BENEDICTION                              Kenneth W. Collier

I do not know where we go when we die;
And I do not know what the soul is
Or what death is or when or why.

What I know is that
The song once sung cannot be unsung,
And the life once lived cannot be unlived,
And the love once loved cannot be unloved.


[1] Thurman, Howard, The Mood of Christmas, 104.

[2] Thurman, 105.

[3] Manning, Doug (2015). The Back Nine: Life Beyond Retirement. Oklahoma City; Insight Books,


[i] AARP. The Clergy: Gatekeepers for the Future. Preamble, the section on spiritual well-being, White House Conference on Aging, 1971.

[ii] Carter, The Virtues of Aging, 8-9.

[iii] Ibid., vii.

[iv] Carter, 18-19.

[v] Ibid., 19.

[vi] Kalish, Late Adulthood: Perspectives on Human Development.

[vii] Carter, 89.

[viii] Ibid.

[ix][ix] Grumbach, Doris (2000). The Pleasure of Their Company. Beacon, 75.