I first became aware of the relentless process of aging in an unexpected way. I was a college pastor, 37 years old, and a student from the campus across the street came for an appointment. She talked out her problem and we had prayer. As she got up to leave, she said with a warm smile, “Thanks very much for seeing me; I thought it would be good for me to talk to someone middle aged.”
Me, middle aged? It was a brand new and entirely unexpected thought. I pondered it for some time after she left. I’m not middle aged, I thought. I am young. Not that much different from the hundreds of students I preach to every Sunday.
But the truth slowly sank in, and since then, people here and there have managed to keep me conscious of the aging process. For example, I was holding a church conference in Western Canada when I was in my early 60s. I was crossing the conference grounds from the lodge to the meeting place, singing to myself, when I saw Maurice coming toward me. He stopped, put his hand on my forearm, and in a most solicitous voice, said something like, “At your age, you shouldn’t be walking and singing at the same time.”
Later that year my wife Kathleen and I were driving across Michigan on I-94. It was late afternoon and time to quit for the day, so I pulled into a motel and went inside. I asked the usual questions: Do you have a nonsmoking room for two? Preferably on the main floor? The man at the desk studied his charts and then, smiling as if he was going to be helpful, said, “I can give you a handicapped room. Fully equipped.” It was another jarring moment. Did I look that decrepit, I wondered.
But the coup de grace came this past week, administered by the boss of a roofing crew replacing the shingles on the house next door. I asked him to look at the roof of my house and give me his opinion. We walked together to my driveway and he stood for a few moments looking up. Then, he said pleasantly, “You won’t be around to replace those shingles.”
I’m not alone with such experiences. I was standing with the late Bishop Paul N. Ellis once when a young man asked him what it was like to be old (he was then in his 60s). He replied, “At least I’ve got there, while you aren’t sure you will.”
The young man saw the humor in the bishop’s reply, but his question did not surprise either of us. Observant seniors aplenty can tell about the subtle social changes that begin to manifest themselves as age creeps on: sales clerks may show lack of interest in giving service; con artists look on the aging as easy prey for their scams; people in a group may ignore their comments.
Growing old is not for the humorless. I’ve been collecting funny stories about aging and loss of memory for some time now. This is not politically incorrect because I’m telling stories on myself. One story my wife and I both enjoy is about the elderly couple who were driving out to meet friends for a social evening. She says to him, “Honey, you try to remember where we’re going and I’ll try to remember who we are.”
Admittedly, there is a less pleasant side to growing old. Strength begins to wane, degenerative diseases show up, floating creaks and aches become regular companions. Perhaps worst of all is the subtle anxiety, always just under the surface, about what the future will hold in this brave new world. The Psalmist’s prayer takes on new meaning for us: “Do not cast me away when I am old; do not forsake me when my strength is gone” (Ps. 71:9).
In my experience, that sort of response is the right one. We can allow faith to take us by one arm and hope by the other as we walk, perhaps a little less briskly than before, down this pilgrim path.
Faith says in one ear, “And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit, who lives in you” (Rom. 8:11). That doesn’t need to apply only to our future resurrection. It can also mean that even the closing years of this mortal stage of our journey can be infused with special energy from God’s Spirit.
And hope says in the other ear, “Because of our faith, Christ has brought us into this place of highest privilege where we now stand, and we confidently and joyfully look forward to sharing God’s glory” (Rom. 5:2, NLT). If faith brings the future into the present, giving “substance to our hopes” (Heb.11:1 NEB), then hope gives the present the assurance of a glorious future.
In the meantime, the people of God — the church — can do a wonderful thing for those in their midst who are of advanced years. It can counter today’s tendency to diminish and devalue the aged. I think of this when I read one of my favorite chapters in the Old Testament at the present, Leviticus 19. It sets forth a summary of how God’s chosen people were to live out his holiness in community, and one verse says, “Rise in the presence of the aged, show respect for the elderly and revere your God. I am the Lord” (Lev.19:32).