Golden Years Week Two: "Old?"
Several of my church members confessed to me that prior to last week's sermon, they were more than a little skeptical about how I would have anything at all to say about getting older---since I'm such a young whipper-snapper.
What we learned last week supplied the foundation for what we'll be talking about this week. We were challenged to ask ourselves, "Are our best years behind us or ahead of us?" And we explored the Biblical difference between a kainos and a neos understanding of what is "new." Our culture only cares about what is neos, what is fresh and young in terms of age. God is more concerned about kainos which tells us that no matter how things look on our outside (even if they are falling apart!) God is constantly renewing us on the inside.
But what if we don't get this? What happens when we continue doing things as we've always done them, and holding on to our twisted understanding of neos as opposed to embracing God's kainos renewal?
Here's a better way to ask that question that is firmly grounded in our reality:
What happens when younger generations say to older generations, "We don't need you," and older generations say to younger generations, "We're done?"
We'll get to that momentarily.
In Matthew chapter 21, Jesus is traveling with his disciples and he sees what appears to be a healthy and vibrant fig tree. However, when he approaches the tree, Jesus sees that it has no fruit and so he curses it, which causes the tree to wither and die. So the disciples are instantly in awe. They basically say to him, "How can we do that?" Jesus replies that if they had just a little bit of faith they could do even greater things like ask a mountain to move and it would.
The funny thing about this whole object lesson is that the disciples completely miss the point. He wasn't teaching them about how they could learn how to kill plants with a word--although that would be pretty cool. Jesus wanted his disciples to see what happens to you when you look as though you are vibrant, alive and full of faith from afar, but upon closer inspection are shown to be fruitless.
In Psalm 92:12-15 we get this little gem:
The righteous will flourish like a palm tree, they will grow like a cedar of Lebanon; planted in the house of the LORD, they will flourish in the courts of our God. They will still bear fruit in old age, they will stay fresh and green, proclaiming, “The LORD is upright; he is my Rock, and there is no wickedness in him.”
I love the contrast here between the tree that Jesus cursed and the trees (people) being described here. The "righteous" in Psalm 92--the people with faith- are described as "fresh & green" and still bearing fruit "in old age." The fig tree that was cursed (and then withered and died) appeared to be fresh and green but had no fruit--no evidence of God at work.
Clearly what we see here is evidence of the marked difference between kainos and neos. The way that our culture emphasizes the importance of neos is a fruitless exercise and one that requires no faith and trust in God.
Here's a way to understand this better...
Consider this statement:
"There is some wisdom that you can only get from having lived through what it took for you to gain it." The fruit that the "righteous" in Psalm 92 bear in their "old age" is fruit that is the result of years of pruning, weathering storms, drought and hardship that a "younger" tree has not received.
There are some things that are not safe in the hands of a 20 year-old.
In the early 1990's the band Nine Inch Nails, which was essentially just artist Trent Reznor recorded a song that Reznor wrote entitled, "Hurt." Reznor wrote the song when he was 20. It encapsulated his struggle with addiction, angst, isolation and pain.
In 2002 producer Rick Rubin began working with legendary artist Johnny Cash, who was in his 70's and in failing health. The idea was that Cash would record some new songs and some covers. The sessions that Rubin had with Cash resulted in 5 albums worth of material, much of which was released after his death in 2003.
One of the songs that Johnny Cash recorded was Reznor's "Hurt." Here is the video:
Johnny Cash demonstrated with this song that years of experience bears fruit. There is also something about his interpretation of the song that is just fresher than ever.
Let's push this a bit farther... In Psalm 92 the psalmist describes the righteous as "Cedars of Lebanon." Not surprisingly, this is fairly significant. You see, the Cedars of Lebanon are trees that essentially transcended cultural and historical boundaries. The Phoenicians used the cedars to build ships, temples and palaces. Egyptians used the resin in mummification and sprinkled the sawdust inside the pyramids. The Sumerians believed that the gods themselves lived among the cedars. The Hebrew people used the bark to perform circumcisions and cure leprosy. They burned the wood during their new year celebrations and used it to build both Solomon's Temple and Herod's Temple. Every major ancient civilization revered the cedars, used the wood in their holiest places or to build their very best buildings. We're talking the Romans, Greeks, Persians, Assyrians and Babylonians.
Gary Gray is a world renowned physical therapist and one of the proponents of "Functional Physical Therapy." After returning from a trip to India and the Far East where he had been learning Eastern therapeutic techniques, Gray revealed that in the small villages he visited, the most flexible, the most limber people in the village where the older members of the community. He remarked on what a huge contrast this was with communities in America.
How many of us when we think of "faith" do we think of older people being more flexible?
In many cultures there is a position that our own culture seems to have lost: The Village Elder The Village Elder is a non-judgmental, non-anxious presence in the community. The Elder has seen it all. They have come to know that some things matter and some things don't and that it is not necessary to fight over every little thing. The Elder is the person who has seen hardship and tribulation in life, but has not been made bitter or cynical as a result. The Elder is the person that you go to in these communities when you need advice, when you are at an impasse, when you need guidance and direction.
What happens when younger generations say to older generations, "We don't need you," and older generations say, "We're done?" Everything falls apart. It's what we are seeing today as our culture continues to embrace neos rather than kainos. Neos has created a gulf between the old and young that can only be bridged when we begin to see what is new in terms of kainos.
Have you become too brittle? Are you in a rut? Have you decided to check out at the moment when your community needs you more than ever? Is your life fruitless and devoid of faith and hope?
I want to invite you to pray this prayer and begin anew:
God please give me the imagination to see a whole new tomorrow. Help me stay close to your Son Jesus Christ, becoming fresher and greener than ever through the power of your Spirit. May my life bear fruit that is sweet to the taste and nourishing to those around me. I pray this in Jesus' name. Amen.