HOW TO LOVE GROWING OLD
A sermon preached at Lyonsville Congregational United Church of Christ on March 23, 2014 (Third Sunday in Lent)
Psalm 90:1-6, 13-17
From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. 22And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” 23But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
24Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 25For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. 26For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?
– Matthew 16:21-26
Just to review, during this season of Lent our worship services are based on chapters of the book “He Still Moves Stones”, by Max Lucado. The reference is to the massive stone that sealed the tomb in which Jesus was laid after his crucifixion – the stone that was found rolled away by the women who first visited the tomb on that first Easter morning. God still moves seemingly impossible obstacles from the lives of people of faith.
The first chapter of the book – which was the theme of the sermon two weeks ago– began with a text from the gospel of Matthew that made the claim that Jesus fulfilled a vision of the prophet Isaiah – that Jesus was a beloved servant of God who “will not break a bruised reed or quench a smoldering wick.” (Matthew 12:20, quoting from Isaiah 42) The rest of the book “He Still Moves Stones” reflects on people – from biblical stories and from the author’s personal experience — whose lives were like bruised reeds or smoldering wicks – damaged by life or just hanging on to life and hope – until God worked powerfully in their lives through the ministry of Jesus Christ.
Today, we consider a way in which many of us become like bruised reeds – the experience of growing old. I’m sure none of you are having to deal with this issue right now, but listen up – maybe you’ll learn something you can share with your parents!
I remember looking forward to getting older. When I was four, I’m sure I was excited to turn five so I could go to kindergarten. When I was fifteen, I couldn’t wait to turn sixteen so I could drive. Turning eighteen was a big day because I was technically an adult – I could vote, I was eligible for the draft (just coming to an end when I reached 18), and in Wisconsin at the time I was legally able to purchase and consume alcoholic beverages. Getting older was exciting!
But a few years later, things started to change. Turning 30 was a jolt because I grew up with a generation that had insisted we would never trust anyone over the age of 30. Soon the inevitable results of aging started to show up and accumulate: I started putting on a few more pounds than when I was 17 years old; my hair and beard started to turn gray; my eyesight keeps getting worse – in spite of having more powerful and complex glasses; my joints seem to ache more and more.
I know many of you share similar experiences.
So what’s so troubling about growing old? One of the chapters in Max Lucado’s book suggests some of the reasons. I have a few of my own ideas as well.
First of all, we live in a culture that seems to glorify youth and strength and beauty. When we start to get older, we can feel as if we don’t matter any more.
A second related reason that we don’t like growing old is the losses we start to experience – and the grief that comes with those losses. We usually think of grief as something that happens when a loved one dies – and that does begin to happen more frequently as we grow older. But we can grieve over anything we loved and valued that is lost. I remember the feeling of loss I experienced when I could no longer play basketball very well – my legs lost their strength and resiliency, and I could no longer jump like I used to – which is the only thing I could do fairly well when I played. A major crisis? No. But it was still a loss. It put me in a funk for a while. And as we get older we lose many things we valued and enjoyed: the ability to drive; the ability to live independently; our youthful attractiveness.
We can even grieve the loss of things we never had – like dreams that will never be fulfilled. I will never be an astronaut. I never had much chance of becoming one, but it’s disappointing to know that I will probably never go into space. We can grieve when we realize we will never rise higher on the corporate ladder, or never have children.
Our early years seem to be times of ever-increasing abilities and privileges and possibilities. As we age, those can decline.
And with the loss can come regret, which usually isn’t very helpful. Author Max Lucado suggests that regret can turn to rebellion:
“Rebellion against the demands. Rebellion against the mundane. Rebellion against the ho-hum. Rebellion against whatever ties you down: your job, your government, your station wagon, or worse still… your family.” (“He Still Moves Stones”, p. 65)
We can do some terrible things when regret leads to rebellion, and a desire to hang on to our youth.
And aging also brings with it a closer sense of our own mortality (something we are reminded of each Ash Wednesday). Most people never think about that when they are young. Most people still avoid thinking about it as they get older.
My spouse and I recently attended a memorial service for a friend just a few years older than we are, who died of cancer. I am watching my mother decline after suffering a series of strokes; she will probably never get any better.
Experiences like that bring the unwelcome truth: We are mortal. None of us will live forever. As our opening hymn this morning (which is based on Psalm 90) says, “Time, like an ever-rolling stream, soon bears us all away; we fly, forgotten, as a dream dies at the opening day.” (“O God, Our Help in Ages Past”, words by Isaac Watts, alt.)
Getting old sucks. Getting old is not for wimps.
So how can we come to love growing old? Again, Max Lucado offers some ideas about how our faith can help. In our gospel lesson, Jesus tells his disciples one of the most brilliant, profound, counter-intuitive nuggets of his teachings: “Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” (Matthew 16:25)
I don’t think Jesus was talking about getting older when he said this – I think he was trying to encourage his disciples who would soon face persecution and even death for their faith in Jesus. But I think the wisdom still holds for us. If you become desperate to hold on to your youth, you will lose the opportunity – the gift – to live right now. If you are willing to offer whatever old and failing parts of you are left to God and in service of others, you can still do amazing things!
Max Lucado gives several examples in his book of people who did remarkable things in their “retirement years.” I think my favorite is this little item:
“A friend of the late American jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes asked him why he had taken up the study of Greek at the age of ninety-four. Holmes replied, ‘Well, my good sir, it’s now or never.’” (“He Still Moves Stones”, p. 68)
Another thing that can help us love growing old is the knowledge – the conviction – that everything is a gift. Everything. Life is a gift – every day of it. I think most people in America today assume they have the right to 90 or 100 good years, at least, and if they don’t make it that far, then someone messed up and did something wrong. Yes, there may be some things we can do to increase our chances of living longer: not smoking, eating well, exercising, getting enough sleep. But it’s still a crap shoot. Every day is precious.
And all the things we think we accumulate and own during our life? They’re a gift, too. My spouse, my pet, my health, my abilities. They are all gifts. They are all temporary. Enjoy them fully now, but don’t try to hold on to them.
And each new day brings new opportunities – new chances to love God and neighbor and self.
A couple summers ago I went to see the Dave Matthews Band do a show up at Alpine Valley – an outdoor concert venue in Wisconsin. I had never heard the Dave Matthews Band live before, but I had heard many of their songs on the radio and I thought they were very creative. I got there early to grab a spot on the lawn – it was one of those beastly hot days we had that summer when it was still 100 degrees as the sun set and the show started. What I didn’t really appreciate is that the Dave Matthews Band has gotten a reputation among its fans as a party band – kind of like what the Grateful Dead was in its day. Folks will follow them from concert to concert, and each one is an occasion to party. People in the audience were drinking, and smoking what I suspect was non-prescription, non-medical marijuana. They were conversing, texting, dancing, making out, and not listening to the music very much.
I stuck out like a sore thumb. I was probably one of the oldest folks there, and I was standing there, trying to listen. And at one point, a young man – probably in his 20s and probably pretty well stoned by then – came up to me and asked me if I wished I was his age again.
What would you have answered? I must admit, when I was his age I might have been out there partying with them. It would be tempting to be that wild and care-free again.
But I quickly remembered how much angst my friends and I had at the time as well – trying to find our place in the world, and someone to love.
And so I answered the young man, No. I’ve already done that. I’m pretty good right now. I’m looking forward to what being 58 years old has to offer. (or at least that’s what I should have said – I probably just said, “What???” And he probably never remembered my answer.)
The psalmist wrote, “Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love, so that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.” All our days. All of them.
One other thing to remember is that God offers us the hope – the promise of even better things to come. The Bible begins with an account of the creation of the heavens and the earth, and then the stories that follow are often stories of how that good creation got messed up by people. But the Bible ends in the book of Revelation with a vision of a new heaven and a new earth; no more tears, no more death. I keep hoping!
And the story of Jesus ends not with death, but with resurrection. New life – eternal life. That unbelievable little plot twist and proclamation gives us the hope of eternal life in Christ when our bodies finally give out and this life comes to an end. But I think it also gives us hope that when our youthful days come to an end, we might find a new life –even a better life – in our AARP years. But the tough part is, there is no resurrection without death; there is no new life unless we let go of the old.
So I’m not going to color may hair or beard to try to look younger. I really do want to see what my 59th year will bring. Maybe I’ll make some young kid wish he was my age!
Robert J. von Trebra
Based on ideas and quotes from the book “He Still Moves Stones,” by Max Lucado (Nashville, TN, Thomas Nelson, 1999)