Our’s is a culture fixated on youth, and ‘youth must be served’. We are the people that idolized the Pepsi generation, and became fixated on young people’s sports, young people’s music, young people’s remarkable feats, whether it’s the Little League World Series or the National Spelling Bee or a plethora of other things. We have advertisements all the time for children’s hospitals, like St. Jude’s, and telethons to raise money for ‘saving the children’. The idea of helping our youngest and most vulnerable members of society is a noble one of course, but what has happened in the process is the neglect of our senior citizens, many of whom are just being parked in ‘rest homes’ so their younger family members don’t have to serve or deal with them any more. How very different our society is from the Biblical societies which were very senior-oriented. One revered the hoary head, and sought the wisdom of long experienced sages. This is hardly an emphasis in our culture these days.
So the real question for folks like me who are getting used to being part of the AARP crowd, is– How does one grow old gracefully in a culture that by in large wants to ignore, deny or forget about aging and the aged? Dylan Thomas of course famously suggested old people should go out with a bang— ‘Do not go gentle into that good night/ rage, rage against the dying of the light’. I don’t see that as a Christian response to aging or dying, but it’s a pretty common one, especially when seniors have been abandoned and become cynical and bitter as they face end of life issues alone. I have come up with a few principles that I at least hope to live by as I continue to age (don’t call me Methusalah yet).
First of all, every Christian should realize that a certain quantity of life is not owed to us by God. Life is a miracle and a gift from God whether we have a little of it or a lot of it, in terms of our physical existence. This truth was heavily underscored to me when our precious daughter Christy died three and a half years ago. The Lord really spoke to me and said “just be thankful for the 32 mostly wonderful years you had with her”. And I am. I wasn’t owed more years of being with Christy, any more than she was owed more years of life. This is not a justice issue, it’s a grace issue, and the sooner we see life that way, the better off we will be. I get a little disturbed sometimes with some of my fellow Evangelicals who throw around the phrase ‘right to life’ rather frequently. Rights presuppose things that should be owed to us, or be provided for all persons equally. I don’t think we have a ‘right’ to life. I think it’s a gift and a blessing, but neither God nor my parents owed me my life.
Secondly, I like to say, ‘Life is not too short when it’s everlasting’. By this I mean that if you really and truly believe the Lord provides everlasting life for you which begins now as you have a saving relationship with the Lord, and continues on ad infinitum into eternity, then you simply do not need to bewail living only a certain number of years in this mortal frame. This life is only the antechamber to eternity. It’s only the first act of the play called LIFE. That being the case, you can sit more lightly with end of life issues as a Christian. You don’t need to go to extravagant extremes to prop up a declining frame as an old person. You have to ask questions of your doctors like ‘will this prolong my living, but without decent quality of life?, Will this surgery merely slightly postpone the inevitable?’ If the answer is yes to these sorts of questions then it is well to avoid bankrupting your family for only a very minimal possibility of a good outcome.
Thirdly, being a believing Christian does not mean being in denial about the reality of disease, decay, and death. It means believing that there is a greater thing in this life than suffering, sin, sorrow, disease, decay and death, and that is the life that God has, and can provide for us. God’s yes to life is louder than death’s no, but that does not in any way mean that death isn’t real, or that we have the right as Christians to be in denial about our diseases, or belittle someone else’s suffering. We are not called to be Stoics and say ‘it doesn’t hurt’. We are called to be brave Christians who say ‘even though it hurts, and at some point I’m going to be with the Lord, it is not the end of me or my story’.
If you really embrace some of these Christian perspectives, then it is possible to grow old gracefully, with love and joy in your hearts, looking forward to the next stage of everlasting life.