On Growing Old Gracefully— Sort of

2013-08-13 18.56.15

It was the Who who said ‘Hope I die before I get old’. Abandon hope Roger and Pete— ya’ll are certifiably old. Any band that celebrates 50 years of touring, or even 40, involves oldsters. And then there was Dylan Thomas who advised ‘do not go gentle into that good night, rage, rage against the dying of the light’. Neither of these approaches have much to do with growing old gracefully.

Some folks take the ‘carpe diem’ approach– ‘gather ye rosebuds while ye may’, and there is something to be said for such an approach. As you see windows of opportunity to do good for others, enjoy life more fully, cherish your loved ones, well yes seizing the moment and appreciating it fully is a good idea. Honestly we should do that with every age and stage of life, not just when we begin to see the dying of the light. But sometimes this approach degenerates into ‘I’ve been sacrificing all my life for others, and now is the time for a narcissism fest— I’m going to do whatever I please, and to heck with you if you don’t like it’. This is the attitude you see on the back of oldsters Winnebagos with the bumper sticker— I’m spending my grandchildren’s inheritance. Definitely not a Christian approach to growing old gracefully. On the other hand, if you have mostly lived selfishly during your life, making up for lost time in doing things you ought to have done for others is a good idea.

One of the lessons one needs to learn certainly is to not be too hard on yourself. By this I mean, don’t look in the mirror too often and think ‘boy have I lost it’. That would be measuring yourself by what you might have looked like say 30 years earlier. For one thing, it’s not a fair comparison. You need to have a little mercy on yourself, which is not the same thing as excusing bad behavior in regard to things you can do something about.

You can take care of yourself so hopefully others don’t have to do so, because the latter can happen simply because you let yourself go. You can continue to exercise, albeit at a slower rate and with less dramatic results (no temporary fad diets however, or temporary exercise programs). Your metabolism changes, and you have to adjust. One needs to take the medicines one has to take to prevent major health disasters. I have to take my cholesterol and blood pressure medicine daily, and it keeps me in normal ranges so I am able to do lots of things that many people in their 60s can’t do any more, for instance travel the world and teach and preach all over the place. That sort of travel is not for the oldster who is out of shape and doesn’t take care of themselves.

I’ve also had a good deal of surgeries to keep my body in decent repair— my hereditary diverticulitis finally led to having two feet of my colon cut out— so now I have a semi-colon. It works just fine for someone my age. I had to have double eye surgery to replace cataract filled lens, and then most recently a further laser surgery when a filmy membrane started growing over the lens in my right eye. I see just fine now both up close and at distance, and in my line of work— I need my eyes and my mouth more than anything else except of course my mind. I once visited an elderly parishioner who tossed a sofa cushion at me she had just cross-stitched. It read “My hearing aids working, my teeth fit fine, but Lord oh Lord how I miss my mind”. If you let your mind go to pot (literally or figuratively) and don’t keep stimulating it with good reading and input, you could fulfill the prophecy of that cushion!

And oh yes I’ve had the gall bladder and the appendix out, not to mention some lymph nodes, swollen due to allergies. And yes, I have to do something about my allergies— a shot a month, plus some Alavert in due season and eye drops too. My doctors tell me I’ve done a good job of maintenance, but the older you get the more you look forward to the day of resurrection. As my 90 year old Mom says— old age is not for sissies, or for the faint of heart. I’ve learn that the Barney Fife advice is good– if there is a problem, ‘nip it in the bud’, even if it means surgery. Taking care of yourself is actually part of your Christian witness, whether you realize it or not. There is nothing more depressing than going to reunions whether school or family, and seeing people who have let themselves fall apart, and who are hardly recognizable.

Another part of growing old gracefully is doing a better job of being patient with others, and being understanding when they fall short or forget things. This applies especially to people older than you in your own family or church circle or at work. And here is where praying that the Spirit will do a further work in you so that the fruit of the Spirit– love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, self-control will be more fully manifested in your life, is a priority. People may not respond much to exhortations, but more often than not they do respond to even random and surprising acts of kindness and love. Anyway, if you want to win some for Christ, you need to be winsome.

You may be surprised to hear that I am not in favor of voluntary retirement for oldsters perfectly capable of still doing meaningful work. Retirement is not in the Bible, its a modern post industrial revolution notion. Regular rest is in the Bible, not retirement in older age. And in fact keeping yourself reasonably fit and mentally alert and morally straight is one of the keys to being able to still do meaningful work in later life. And doing that work keeps you and your brain stimulated in good ways. I recommend you read my little book The Rest of Life on this very issue. From the divine perspective, no one is ‘owed’ retirement. And I have studied what happens to ministers who suddenly retire, and lose their sense of the purpose for living, namely serving others. A huge percentage of them are dead within five years of retirement. This is why John Wesley prayed ‘Lord don’t let me live to be useless’. It’s a good and proper prayer, not a cry of desperation.

Most of all, I would hope as you age that you cultivate more and more not just an attitude of gratitude for all the good things God has blessed you with, but a realization of how blessed you have been even just to be alive, and see the Lord’s hand in various things, and have had the opportunity to love God and others. Life is not a right, it’s a gift from God. If you believe at all in the concept of growing in grace over time, why not ask God to make you more loving and merciful in old age than you were earlier in life. Why not fall more headlong in love with God with your whole heart, mind, strength, and truly love your neighbor and even your enemy as yourself. Yes, of course it is true that some people have such a low self image that they have a hard time loving others in part because they can barely love themselves in a non-narcissistic way. But God can do something about that. He can remind you in your heart of hearts that you are created in his image, and are being recreated in the image of Christ, and are of great worth to Him. Don’t let old age become a time to have a pity party over how you now are, or what you missed out on in life, or who has gone on to glory before you. I’ve spent too much time with widows who live entirely in the past because their spouse died decades ago, when they could have carried on in a much more useful and less self-pitying way. That kind of forever grieving the loss of the past or of a loved one is ultimately selfish, it’s ultimate about feeling sorry for yourself to a great degree. A Christian is not meant to dwell in the past, but rather face forward into the future and say ‘the future is as bright as the promises of God’. This is not cockeyed optimism, it is the Gospel, because God and not anything evil thing in this world will have the last word about us all.

Think on these things….

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