Oct 23 2011

Aging Grace-fully, Deuteronomy 34:1-12, October 23, 2011

Before he died at the age of 87, Dr. Seuss offered this backhanded diagnosis in his first book directed at grownups like himself: "You're in pretty good shape for the shape you are in!"

Out of the 10, to 20,000 new words that pop up every year, about 100-200 make it into the dictionary.

Some are surfacing to describe aging in a more positive light: such as "eldering," the "longer living," "seniors," and here’s my favorite, the "chronologically advantaged!"

We do not set out to become old. … Far from it, we hardly intend to become middle-aged. Instead, we plan to live in some eternal now which will lead on to something better, something more complete than what we have done before.

Sometime in our spiritual journeys, as a complete surprise, we notice that winter has arrived. The waves crashing over the deck are ice-cold and gray. For the first time, we know we are not going to become old; (, and, perhaps without admitting it,) we are already old. Youth and middle age are behind us.

This change has somehow occurred; it seems, without preparation, without fair warning. Humorist John Chase said in his 85th year, "The reason why I'm not doing so well at being old is that I don't have any practice."

…. But haven't we been preparing all along? Haven't our lives up to now given us some kind of practice?

In the '60s, "Never trust anyone over 30." Now, that phrase sounds ridiculous. How times have changed! Those that were in their 20s and 30s in the 60s are now in their 60s or 70s! Jerry Rubin, the hippie-turned-yuppie, has a new mantra. "I used to say, don't trust anyone over 30. Now, I say, don't trust anyone under 50."

The fact is that even as the '60s saw the blossoming of the civil rights era, it also honed a new kind of prejudice-- ageism.  The '60s were not alone in shrugging off the older generation; strength and youth has always been idolized. But, in the last few decades of the 20th century the pace has picked-up, and the increasingly disposable lifestyle our times have practically made growing older a sin.

Often television portrays the elderly as weak, slow, or out-of-date. Respect for elders doesn’t seem to be taught in homes any more. Conversations move at break-neck speed and acronyms have replaced sentences.

The truth is that the fastest growing segment of our population is those over 65. People are living longer and healthier lives. In less than one century, there has been an astonishing 50 percent increase in longevity (from 40s in 1900 to 80s plus in 2000). For the first time in history, four-generation families are becoming commonplace.

If any place in our culture should be excited about these numbers, and what they mean, it should be the church!  For too long, all the denominations have been moaning about the "graying of the church" and the shrinking numbers in church schools and youth groups---as if Christians were all stamped with some kind of expiration date, like milk or meat, and should be discarded after a certain age.

Who says an older church means a less vital church?

Why is it that when a church is filled with lots of youth or young families, we celebrate it as "alive" --while when a church fills its pews with those in their "third age"--60 and older--we shake our heads at that church's "decline"?

The very young and the very old are the fastest growing groups in America (4,179,000 babies were born in the United States in 1990, the most in 27 years). Why do we keep focusing our money, time and programming on trying to swell the ranks of the youngest (which we should do, by the way) while ignoring the needs and interests and strengths of the oldest?

Why do we target those with the least amount of time available for volunteer activities (mid-lifers) for leadership positions--while failing to engage those who now have a far greater flexibility of time (retirees)? The chronologically advantaged have the accumulated knowledge and wisdom to address crucial areas of church growth and development . . . IF, they choose to!

Here’s a brief comparison of the major age groups:

Older: Have time/ money/ leisure/ experience/ wisdom

Mid-age: Are busiest/with kids/grandkids/ aging parents/ work to make ends meet

Youth: Have spontaneity/ excitement/ creativity/ but lack experience and have limited funds

The point? Ideally, all 3 could work together to compliment each other’s strengths and weaknesses. It’s not about who is better at what, but are we teaching those who need to learn and utilizing gifts of those who have knowledge to share?

Church time if often segregated by age group to the point that we never learn from each other. We all need each other.  Let’s envision a new way of church discipleship while there’s still time.

Moses didn’t start out as God’s spokesperson and national leader. During his youth, Moses lived as an Egyptian, pampered and privileged in Pharaoh's house. In midlife, Moses worked hard tending sheep, raising a family, being a member of a busy extended agricultural community.

Not until he had appropriately aged did the Lord call Moses into his most active service. In his "third age," Moses did not "retire" to a hammock under a shade tree. He became the servant of the Lord, Israel's greatest leader.

It is time to celebrate the positive dimensions of growing old "grace-fully?"

Graceful: Not one word, graceful; but two words, grace & full: we live full of God’s grace.

What gifts and graces do today's and tomorrow's "third-agers" have to offer our churches? All of us must follow Moses; lead and learn to grow old "grace-fully."

Here are just a few thoughts to ponder: 

Growing old "grace-fully" does not mean winding down. Instead, it means learning to shift gears. Remember how hard it was to begin driving a stick shift car, but as soon as you learned where the gears were, you could drive smoothly.

Growing old "grace-fully" does not mean letting others take over the reins and settling back. Instead, it means letting God direct your course. Don’t automatically say ‘no’ when opportunities or challenges come your way; think about it and pray about it before ruling anything out.

Growing old "grace-fully" does not mean disengaging from the community. Instead, it means being prepared to take on new positions of leadership.

Growing old "grace-fully" does not mean vision is dimmed. Instead, it means being a visionary for the future of your church, your community, your country. Who better to envision the future than those who’ve already been there?

Growing old "grace-fully" does not mean caving in to limitations. Instead, it means giving God the opportunity to strengthen your weaknesses--no matter how long-lived they may be. God equips those He calls; draw strength from God; don’t try to do it on your own!

Growing old "grace-fully" does not mean rattling around in an "empty nest." Instead, it means opening the doors of your mind, heart and home to new ideas, new feelings and new people God sends your way.

At midlife, Moses was a tongue-tied shepherd, eking out a living on his father-in-law's land, consumed by the demands of a family. Having left behind the glamorous life he had led as a youth, Moses certainly was not looking for any more radical changes in his life beyond that.

But then, God had other plans. With an open spirit -- if skeptical mind -- Moses obediently followed the new dramatic "retirement plan" God had in store for him.

Are we open to doing the same? Are you looking forward to, or already enjoying, "retirement" as a time with a slower pace, a quiet house and a lot of gardening and leisure time? Not if you're to grow old "grace-fully."

The Spirit of Christ in you does not deteriorate with age--it remains as fresh and sweet and surprising as on the first day you received it into your hearts.

We all need to pull together. This is not a time to coast.

Missionary and martyr Jim Elliot said, "When it comes time to die, make sure that all you have to do is die."The only way to make sure of that is to live every day as though it were your last. He died at age 28.

When someone asks, "Where's your better half?” tell them it is yet to come. Amen. Let us pray . . . Amen.


Rosemary Stelz

First Presbyterian Church, Bastrop, Louisiana




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