We become old in a single day.
It seems that abrupt. Our old man or old woman status comes as sudden and unbidden as rain on a wedding day. It arrives as unwelcome but unavoidable as the VISA bill after the shopping spree.
The signs of decrepitude accumulate with alarming swiftness: one night you bed down youthful and nimble, the next day you wake up elderly and stiff. There you go, your skin a masterpiece of taut unblemished smoothness, vandalized by age until it’s blotched and withered and rough as lizard hide. Where did that smiling youth in the photo go, and why does he bear such little resemblance to the person in the mirror? We move from agility to debility, from keen recall to bumbling forgetfulness, from flesh tones to shades of grey, with nary a moment to catch our breath, which we have less of anyhow.
I’m thinking these gloomy thoughts for two reasons. One, I’ve been nursing a sore hip for a few days. It just happened, just another of those bodily malfunctions that attend, with worrisome regularity and for no apparent cause, those of us of a certain age.
The other reason is that my children are all home, or about to be: and they’re not children anymore. My son, whiskered and muscled, towers above me, and speaks in a deep man voice, and regales me with tales of things faraway and exotic. He makes his own way in the world, quite handily. He has skills I never acquired, knowledge I never attained, experiences I never tasted. I think he could probably hang a licking on me, but I don’t want to test the theory.
And my daughters – one who still lives at home, the other who I hadn’t seen for nearly 4 months until this past Saturday, and have barely seen since – are both women. They are full of their own thoughts, opinions, convictions, dreams and, it seems, a mild disdain for any advice I care to offer. They carry themselves with poise and confidence.
It is strange to feel so happy and creaky all at once. It is odd to be so proud of this man, these women, and in the same breath to feel so reduced and bewildered. One question I will ask God in heaven, if such things are permitted, or even needed: Why didn’t you give us a lengthier stretch of 20-something invincibility? Why couldn’t you have prolonged our prime for, oh, 50 years, or 60, so that any wisdom we attain by hard knocks and sheer longevity we’d get to apply with undimmed vigor?
But no. God built into us inevitable physical and mental decline.
The more I face the reality of this, the more I savor the soul. It’s the only part of us that can become more vibrant and supple and beautiful with age. Or it can become bitter, shrivelled, ugly. That choice is almost exclusively up to us. We tend our own soul. And the soul, unlike the body, is not subject to inescapable decay, or guaranteed spontaneous betterment. I work out my body on a regular basis (doesn’t it show?), and though I believe this is important and part of my stewardship, all I’m doing is slowing down the inevitable. Biology is a ruthless taskmaster. Chronos, the time-god, is a heartless driver.
But neither can touch the inmost places. That is our exclusive domain, to nurture or starve as we see fit. For this reason, the Apostle Paul writes: “…physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come” (1 Tim. 4:8).
Question: Do you work out your soul with greater vigor and frequency than you do your body? Do you watch over what you feed your soul more carefully than what you do your body?
As we celebrate the coming of the One who makes all things new, and as we enter a new year, would you commit to one thing above all: to receive all Christ gives you in order to become all Christ intends for you? Would you make your main business the cultivation of a deep soul?
May he bless you, and make you a blessing.
The elders at the church where I pastor met this week for an EhD – an Elder Half Day. We hold these monthly, a 3-hour gathering for the sole purpose of exploring a single theme. An EhD involves 3 things: biblical exploration of that theme; a guided but free-flowing discussion on it; and prayer – lots of prayer.
This EhD was on the older generation. That’s a vague way to describe an age group, but roughly it refers to those in their mid-60s and beyond. This is the fastest growing age demographic in Canada. For example, in the 70s, 8% of the population was over the age of 65. In the next 2 years, 16% will be. But because Canada’s population has grown in those 40 years, that doesn’t tell the whole story. Try this:
• In 1971, 1,750,000 men and women in the country were 65 or older.
• Today, it’s 5 million.
• By 2016, it will be close 6 million.
This is one of those realities we ignore to our own peril. Thanks to the persistence of my chairman, himself approaching this magic age, our elders stopped ignoring it. His heart on the issue distills to a key question: How do we honour and engage the older generation? Or to phrase it more like he does: “How do we heed the wisdom of those who have lived long, and how do we release it for the sake of the whole church?”
We started the conversation this week. And we got excited. One of the participants emailed me after to say it was the most inspiring EhD he’s been at yet (and he’s been to all of them).
What got us exited? That’s simple: the sheer wealth of life experience and spiritual depth bound up in the older generation. They know things. They’ve seen things. They’ve been through things. Theirs is a wisdom, not of books and theories and guesses, but of sorrow and joy, trial and error, triumph and defeat. It’s been quarried from real rock. It’s been forged in real fire. It’s been tempered in real water. They have, in their hearts and bodies, gone places the young just speculate about but feel entitled to opinions on anyhow. The great tragedy is that those who have earned their opinions, and honed them to a fine wisdom, are so seldom consulted. And they rarely offer their thoughts unbidden.
Yet we need this generation like never before.
Emerson said the great need of his day was for the centuries to speak to the hours. In our day, may at least the decades speak to the years. Let wisdom speak, and may we all be listening.