It’s not easy growing old. I know, because I’m doing it. People sometimes ask how long it takes me to write a sermon. I tell them it depends on the topic and the week. I can tell you this sermon took me 60 year. I turned 60 this summer. I am officially an ‘old guy.’ Granted, my daughters have been telling me this for much longer. This year, the facts are on their side.
I speak about this topic then, with a little more authority. It is not easy getting old, but there is more to it than that. There is also joy in it. There is wisdom to be gained. Today I want to explore how we can get wiser about growing old.
The passage this morning is from Psalm 71 and it is a “contemplative translation”[i]. It grabs the essence of the passage, and then marinates in it long enough that it becomes very personal. Not only is God addressed in very personal ways (i.e., “Beloved” and “Friend”), but so too the “enemies”. The jeering voices come not just from physical enemies outside, but also from voices within:
I have been a burden to many;
In You alone will I trust.
I am filled with gratitude
and sing your praises all the day.
Do not abandon me in my old age;
Desert me not when my strength is spent,
or when my mind plays tricks with me.
For fears rise up to confuse me,
Doubts and forgetfulness
band together, and say,
“the Beloved no longer dwells with you:
There is no one to stand by you.”
Growing Old at The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel
Its not easy getting old- and its not welcome, either. The situation of our clip this morning[ii] is of a group of retirees who are not necessarily looking forward to retirement. Some feel abandoned. Some don’t have the resources they will need. All are looking for an alternative, and they find the hope of something better in a brochure about a hotel in India. It holds out the possibility of living out their years with dignity and style. At least, that’s what they were hoping. What they found is what we see once they arrived.
Scene 4: (Where guest finally check into and have their first dinner at the hotel.)
The clip ends with Maggie Smith’s character exclaiming, “It’s hell. I’m in hell.” It’s not just her new accommodations she is referring to. Her room is suspect, but so is her body. The hotel is crumbling, but so is her social network. She feels abandoned and alone.
“There is no one to stand with you”
Or, as Maggie says it, "I’m in hell."
She is not alone. There are many people today asking the question:
How do I grow gracefully in a culture obsessed with youth?
From Botox to Viagra, Cosmetic Surgery to Wrinkle Cream, Liposuction to hair implants, there is a huge industry aimed at making us- and keeping us, young. If you want to compliment someone, just tell them how “young” they look. That tells you all you need to know about how we view youth, as well as how we view getting old. We understand the sentiment of one of the characters in the film when she says,
“I don't want to grow older.
I don't want to be condescended to, to become marginalized
and ignored by society.
I don't want to be the first person they let off the plane in a hostage crisis.”
But we are getting old- and getting older. What do we do with a society where more and more people are living past 80 while the cultural anthem is “Forever Young”?
We started this series with a core truth:
You can’t grow wise in the seasons of life, if you don’t allow for seasons in which wisdom can grow.
Aging- getting old, is another season of life. There is nothing wrong with trying to stay fit and look good, but when it stems from an obsession with youth that resists the notion that old age belongs to God every bit as much as youth does, then we will be more likely to miss the great lessons and blessings that are waiting.
We need to Grow Wiser About Getting Old.
Some of the work is personal. Each age and stage has its work to do if life is going to flourish. Some of the work of the elderly includes making peace with our past. Anyone who has lived this long has experiences that can weigh them down with regrets and resentment. Part of the work of the age is to make peace with our past and acknowledge that while our lives (or portions of it) did not turn out as we hoped, it was nonetheless the life that got us here.
Some of the work has to do with making peace with others. As with the psalm, everyone has “enemies”, people who have harmed them- or whom we have harmed. Some of the most painful rifts occur with people in our families. With age comes the need- and possibility, for reconciliation.
Some of the work of the age has to do with contribution: what do we have to give to others? How can we still bless our world? The idea of people retiring and now just living for themselves is counter to not only their core personality, but their creation. Whether it is financial, emotional or offering our skills, there are many ways people who thrive at this age are able to bless those around them.
Of course underneath all this is coming to peace with God. It means learning to trust God in new ways. It means learning new aspects of dying to our old self (the self we constructed around who we wanted to be, thought we should be or were expected to be) so we might experience the birth of the new self, That means learning to surrender ourselves to the One who our fears tell us has abandoned us. This is what it sounds like when we do:
O Friend, be not far from me;
O Beloved, come and enfold me in your Presence!
Help me to release my fears.
Hear my prayer that they be transformed,
O You, who are my Counselor.
I surrender myself into your hands,
I praise You more and more.
I tell others of your goodness,
of your compassion and grace all the day;
For your glory is beyond my understanding.
As I grow in inner peace and serenity,
I sing songs of praise, to You, my Friend!
Growing Wiser as a Community
But its more than the individual who has work to do if we are going to grow wise about getting old. The whole community needs to examine its own assumptions about age. In her book, The Gifts of Imperfection, Brené Brown opens our understanding about shame.
“Shame is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.”
While guilt is what you feel because of something you did, shame is what you experience for who you are. Why is this important? Because there is a sense of shame and rejection around people who are getting older, not because of that they have done, but because of who they are. They are old, and in a myriad of ways, they get the message that they are not valued and worthy of connection or consideration. In the West, to be old is to be slow, fragile and a problem to be solved.
That’s not the way it is everywhere. In the Bible, age is considered a gift. It India, it is the source of reverence. Go to Zimbabwe and they will ask you how old you are. It is a way of assigning dignity and honor. The older you are, the more you get.
It is understood that while the body may be slower, the elderly have great wisdom and gifts to offer. In fact, what they have is essential for society. Richard Rohr summarizes it when he observes,
Without elders, a society perishes socially & spiritually[iii]
Growing wiser about getting old doesn’t mean that we start to tout the virtues of the elderly over the young. That’s just a different way to fractionalize community and isolate people. And that is the problem
The real problem with the elderly is not that they are facing mortality or that they are becoming more vulnerable, it is that they are living with the prospect of being isolated and rejected.
There is no one to stand by your side…
The answer is not pit one group over the other, but to realize how much we have to offer one another.
There are communities that are rising up that are testing this idea. There are developments that house foster children, but not exclusively. In fact three fourths of the developments consist of elderly people who get reduced rent (solving one problem) in exchange for a certain amount of service with the younger families. From childcare to tutoring or teaching needlework, it is the interaction of all ages together that is making these communities flourish.[iv]
The experiment is expanding to communities of teen-age moms, who are surrounded by elderly households. Everyone has agreed that one of the stipulations to living there is a commitment to service to one another. When that happens, everyone wins: The young, the old and everyone in between.
Aging in the Community of Faith
One of the reasons I am excited about re-starting our midweek program for children is that it isn’t just for children. It involves parents and people of all ages. Together we create an environment where life can flourish.
The church is one of those few entities that is built upon the gifts of all ages to serve people of all ages. It is one of the things that makes us unique.
Another aspect of what makes us unique is the fact that we see this as more than just a social or emotional need that is being addressed. We recognize that underneath all this is our belief in God.
The second core truth in this series says:
This season is not a problem to be solved, it is the next chapter of your life that is waiting to be written
Old age has its problems, but all ages and stages have their problems. Old age itself is not a problem to be solved. People of faith will approach it as they do every age- another chapter of life that belongs to God and as such, it is sacred.
Aging and Everyday Spirituality
Everyday Spirituality isn’t more than just what we do on Sunday mornings in worship. Everyday Spirituality builds on worship to help us recognize and respond to God in every arena of our life. That means we can look for the sacred that is embedded in a movie about old people in India. It also means we recognize the presence of God in every situation and in every age.
It means we start with the premise that there is One who does not abandon us at any age. God is companion and friend even before we recognize God’s presence. It means we can trust this God to never abandon and always be present, embracing us in love. That's true for old guys, too.
We can age gracefully because our whole life can be grace-filled. When that happens, we not only can experience, “inner peace” and “serenity”, it means we are able to embrace every age and meet every situation with trust, hope and courage. That's good news for every age.