I appreciate the website rightnowmedia, and I go onto it probably every day. There’s always something to grab my attention, and I’ve worked steadily through courses on the books of the Bible, and on themes like prayer, peace and mission. It’s a great site.
Are you waiting for the ‘but’? Here it comes: there are courses for children, teenagers, schools, young people, advice on dating and marriage, there’s a great plethora of courses for parents and, because it still takes two to make a child there’s load more advice for fathers, and then for mothers, there are courses for men (always square jawed and outdoorsy in the illustrations) and for women (always energetically sweet and winsome in the pics) and for leaders. Not one, not one, ministering to the elderly, addressing our spiritual and emotional lives as we age. Not one challenging us to go deeper, stretch further, look higher.
Maybe they think that we don’t need a bit of a helping hand and teaching as we enter our latter years, that we know it all by now and are just amazingly gracious. Hmm. They need to get real. Think about the old people you know. Some great and some not so great. Some peaceful and some seething. Some kindly and some, quite frankly, criminally self-obsessed. We are old but we are still human. We have experience and knowledge and we can pass these on, and we may have a particular perspective on life that can be useful….
… old people get stuff wrong. It’s not the prerogative of the hale and hearty. Everyone’s a sinner. Old people linger on for bloody years getting things wrong (I know, I am that soldier). We cause more trouble and division and conflict in the church than any one else. We can be just as foolish as the college kid, as stubborn as the new dad, as self-righteous as the successful business owner. And we have had a long lifetime to perfect our faults; I am more perfectly faulty now than ever before, every shiny fault is honed and rounded, obvious to everyone (except me). While age can bring wisdom and experience, peace and contentment, it can bring complacency too, and judgmentalism (is that a word?) and unteachability (pretty sure that isn’t a word). Us grey haired loons in the church, any church, every church, are the ones most likely to say we can’t change routine, or location, or reverse old decisions. We are the ones most likely to give the leadership a great heap of trouble because – guess what – we’ve been giving the world a heap of trouble for a lot longer than the youngsters have and we’re jolly good at it.
You want to reinvigorate your church? Start with the old people. We will be around for a long time yet and when we go, there will be others in our place, and they will be just as awkward. Start with the old people. If we oldies are lively and involved, if you include us, and enable us, so that we can enable you, then – hallelujah! Stand by for miracles. If the old people get it right the youngsters will feel loved and supported. If the oldies care more about the future than they do about the past, church life will blossom. But part of including us is holding us to account. Part of us being included is us taking responsibility, being open and honest, humble. All that. It’s a two way street.
My point is serious and personal. There are shocks in old age – when we get a diagnosis that spells a slow decline, or wake up to a new ache, or see our family and friends dying, leaving us behind…. this is all new territory and we sometimes react badly, misunderstand our role in the church, and – feeling vulnerable – we dig in, instead of reaching out. When we go from a life of family and employment and being relevant to one of long days with no one needing us, we can feel lost and afraid. We’ve never been here before. Is it any wonder that we make mistakes in the long shapeless days? Does it surprise anyone that sometimes our thinking is circular, stuck in the past, when we have no one to bounce ideas off, no one’s enthusiasm to share? But that’s not what God wants of us.
God doesn’t intend old age to be a period of selfishness and self preservation.
The righteous will flourish like a palm tree,
they will grow like a cedar of Lebanon;
planted in the house of the Lord,
they will flourish in the courts of our God.
They will still bear fruit in old age,
they will stay fresh and green,
proclaiming, “The Lord is upright;
he is my Rock,
and there is no wickedness in him.”
None of that happens magically. God doesn’t wave his magic wand and zinnnggg! we’re all fresh and green and weighed down with luscious spiritual fruit.
Sin doesn’t fall away when we hit 70. We may not be up to robbing a bank or seducing anyone, but we have our own secret sins, resentment, gossip, self-pity, fear, manipulation, self-righteousness. Think about your local church, think for a moment about those who complain about the music or new forms of worship, about the youngsters, or the financial management, or the direction the church is taking, or the clothes people wear… the moaners are mostly the OLDIES. That’s our little litany of sin. They don’t make headlines, or reach the criminal courts, but these things don’t just damage the individual’s walk with God, they hold us back as a people, as a family. They hinder the Kingdom of God.
My point is this: old people don’t want to hold anyone back. Like everyone else we want to move onwards with God, doing his work, being relevant and loving. And because we are human, and very often alone, we need a bit of help along the way. I am so tired of hearing that old cliché ‘young people are the future of the church’. The future of the church is everyone, right now, going from this moment into the next and the next and the next, with God. It’s not as if the Bible disregards old people, assuming that we’re beyond help – there are so many wonderful verses showing us the way to go. This is one of my favourites and I do try to remember it every now and then when … well, when I’m feeling a bit old and grumpy and wishing that everything could be as it once was…
Do not say, ‘Why were the old days better than these?’
For it is not wise to ask such questions.
Life, now, today, this minute is wonderful. Whether you’re 20 or 90, this is the moment God has given us, in the place he has brought us to, and our job is to be teachable, receptive and surrendered. We don’t get an excuse slip when we hit 70.
There’s a catechism answer I remember from my RC childhood
‘Why did God make you?’
“God made me to know him, love him and serve him in this world and to be happy with him for ever in the next.”
How ever old we are, we are here to praise him, to bring him glory, to be filled with his Spirit, Love and Joy. That’s why we’re still alive! That’s why I’m still here, impatient for glory, when my husband is damn well dead (how come he gets all the fun?) No, listen, seriously. We are all here, whatever our age, in order to magnify the name of God, to bring his light into the world, to show his love to those who don’t yet know him. We can still do that. We can. But sometimes, even when we’re old and in some ways wise, we need help to do those things, to be that follower. The church can wash its hands of us when we’re dead and gone but until then we are part of the action, and like everyone else we need to be held accountable, to be encouraged and taught.
When you’re old, and finding some parts of life difficult, and you’re alone, and a bit ‘left behind’, it’s easy to slip away from God, to see the sin of others and recognise it while being blind to our own.“Oh the gift that God could give us, to see ourselves as others see us.” to quote Robbie Burns (translated). We need others to show us who we are, to lovingly help and guide us, so that we in turn can lovingly guide them. It’s called unity. It’s called fellowship. That’s God’s way.
Even when I am old and grey,
do not forsake me, my God,
till I declare your power to the next generation,
your mighty acts to all who are to come.