Golden Years - Week One (Age to Age)

For the next two weeks I will be preaching on Aging.
The median age of my congregation is in the high 60's or early 70's--depending on how inclusive you tend to be in calculating it.  Like most mainline Protestant denominations, my denomination--the Presbyterian Church (USA)--has long been identified as a "gray-ing" denomination.
Most churches in my denomination are doing everything they can to try to "attract" younger people.  Mine is no different.  There's a good reason for doing so, quite frankly.  At some point if our churches don't begin to add younger members, they will have to face a serious crisis due to membership loss through attrition.
But there's an unintended result from this necessary action--one that I think is rooted firmly in the way our society thinks and speaks about age.  Our focus on drawing younger people into the church (which we need to do to survive) unintentionally reinforces the our culture's view that newer and younger is better.  And while there are exceptions to be sure, many older adults are adversely affected by this obsession with newness.  Which is why we seem to be experiencing increasing complacency, resignation and sometimes fear and intractability among so many older people both in our communities and in our churches. 
Photo of the sailor Joshua SlocumImage via WikipediaBut how old is "old," really?  When does your life really begin?  When you stop being young, do you lose your relevance?
The picture to the right is of is Joshua Slocum.  Slocum took a small sailboat that he had basically built himself and decided to sail around the world.  He wrote about his adventures in a bestselling book that was published shortly after he completed his circumnavigation.  Once when pirates were chasing him, he would go below decks and change clothes before reappearing to make the pirates believe there were more people on the boat.  When a large shark threatened to kill one of herd of dolphins that was following his boat, Slocum rigged a frying pan on a rope to distract the shark, held the rope with his foot and shot the shark to death with a shotgun.   He figured out how to navigate his boat without having to touch the wheel, and did so for over 2,000 miles at a stretch. 
Joshua Slocum began his journey when he was 51.  How many of us think that when we're 51 that's when we're going to drop everything, leave everyone and sail around the world?
This is Sherman Bull. He climbed Mt Everest.  He is, in fact, the oldest Westerner to do just that.  He was 64 when he did it.
How many of us think that when we're 64... that's when when we are going to be at the top of our mountain climbing game... that's when we're going to scale the tallest point on earth?
When Frank Lloyd Wright, the renowned architect decided to take on the most challenging project of his life, he went to the deserts of Arizona to do it.  Wright is famous for his belief that nature and architecture should be integrated in such a way where they complement one another.  His works were renowned and his fame was secure before he left for Arizona.
Wright took several of his students with him and for months they basically just dug in the rock and sand.  In the end, Wright and these talented students created what would become his masterpiece: Taliesin West.
Wright was 75 when he went into the desert.
How many of us think that we'll be saying at age 75... Now is when I want to go out into the wilderness and endure months and months of hardship and back breaking work, mentor a bunch of students and then create the best thing I've ever done?
Check out this video on Youtube, which I am unable to embed here:
Janey Cutler was 80 years old when she appeared on Britain's Got Talent and actually impressed none other than Simon Cowell.
How many of us think that when we are 80 years old... that's when we'll be at our peak in terms of our singing career?
Georgia O'Keefe, the great American painter was still painting masterpieces when she was 98 years old.  Masterpieces.
How many of us believe that if we reach the age of 98 that we'll be so relevant that our work, our words, our deeds will be considered masterpieces?

I will be turning 42 in a few weeks.  It may not seem that old, but I am getting pretty close to the dead center of my life.  It's within that context that I want to consider the following:
As we begin reaching "certain" milestones in terms of our age... are the best years of our lives behind us?  What's the arc?  Do we achieve some sort of high point at a certain age and then everything starts to go downhill until we lose relevance, lose energy and eventually die so that people can memorialize us by eating Publix chicken strips and drinking iced tea in the Fellowship Hall?

Or is there something else?  You see, I believe that God has other ideas in mind.  I also think that we have a messed up understanding of what is "new" and what is "young" and what is "relevant."
In 2 Corinthians 4:16 we have this verse, which I present from The Message:
"So we're not giving up.  How could we!  Even though on the outside it often looks like things are falling apart on us, on the inside where God is making new life, not a day goes by without his unfolding grace."

The Greek word for "giving up" or "losing heart" here is ekkakoumen, which has the root kaka... I know. The possible things I could say are endless.  It's one of those phrases that sort of transcends language and history to mean something icky.

But Paul indicates that things are not icky, and that we should not lose heart because every single day even though our outside might look like it's getting older (I like the "falling apart" phrase used in the Message--I feel that way some days), God is continually making us new.  The word he uses here is anakainoutai which comes from the word kainos.  There are two main words for "new" in the ancient Greek: kainos and neos.  Our understanding of these two worlds and how they are understood are our way toward a more adventurous Biblical understanding of aging.

First, kainos has nothing whatsoever to do with time.  It reflects the redemptive activity of God.  It's not the kind of word that you would use to describe your advancing age.  The reason why Paul used this word instead of neos was simply to say: "even though we are getting older, we are fresher than ever because of God's great redeeming grace."

On the other hand, neos refers to the newness of something and is fixed firmly in time.  When we think in terms of neos, the "new" we understand is what is youngest. 

Our culture almost exclusively thinks of newness in neos terms.  And more specifically, that what is neos is best.  We not only apply this products, concepts, art and sports... we also apply it to one another.

Think about this...  Just when you reach your peak in terms of your life experience, your wisdom and the amount of time you have on your hands to give of yourself and what you have learned for the betterment of humankind we determine that you are longer neos and we send you to Florida. 

One moment your neos... You're relevant, you're vital, you're part of everything, and the next moment you are wearing Sansi-belts, polishing your white loafers, turning in your neighbor whose hanging flower pots violate the home owner's association rules, and complaining that your golf cart won't hold a charge.  

 I am well aware that I live in Florida, and that many of the members of my church left wherever they were when they determined they were no longer neos and decided to retire here.  There's nothing wrong with not wanting to freeze to death 8 months out of the year.  Year-round golf is a good thing.  I am glad that they are here because I love and care about them. 

 But there is such a thing as a "Florida of the mind" isn't there?  This idea that just when I have the most to offer, I withdraw and buy into the assumption that my best years are behind me.  But what if our best years were ahead of us... regardless of our age. 

In Joshua 14 we find the lesson of Caleb.  Caleb was a relatively young man when he and Joshua were sent to spy on the Promised Land to determine how the people of Israel might be able to take it.  Both he and Joshua came back with a glowing report about how awesome the place was. Sure, there were giants, and warriors and it was going to be hard... but they knew that God was with them.  Sadly, no one bought what they were selling and God allowed them all to wander for 40 years in the desert.

After the Israelites had conquered the land and they were dividing it up among the family groups, Caleb came forward to claim his.  He was in his 80's at this point.  Instead of lobbying for a plot of land near a lake on a plain where everything was easy and already fought for and won, Caleb opted instead for the hill country where the aforementioned giants lived.

It's sort of like Caleb knew that his best warrior work was ahead of him.  

That's kainos.  It's knowing that day after day, God is working some redemption in you so that no matter what the world thinks is going on with you in terms of neos, you are constantly being made new and fresh and vibrant and alive.  

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