Well, first, all the necessary disclaimers: I’m not old, not really, not yet. Still in my mid-60s, in good health, approaching retirement and whatever adventures the next act will hold. So I don’t want you to think of me as old, decrepit, a geezer, or anything like that. In a culture that valorizes and prioritizes the new, identifying as “old” can be a form of social suicide!
But yes, I must admit it: I am aging. Among other things, that means there are more miles behind me than ahead, more years in the rearview than through the windshield.
Here are some of the things I am appreciating about growing older. I understand that I am not guaranteed a set number of years ahead. I make no claims as to the completeness or correctness of this list, I only claim that it is my list:
The invitation to let go of some more idols. John Calvin said the human heart is a veritable idol factory, and mine is no exception. Idolatry happens when we take a good thing and make it into a god-thing. There’s nothing automatic about aging and being freed from my idols. In many ways, as we age, we may cling to our remaining idols are the more desperately. But the longer I live, the more invitation I have to let go of the no-gods I have worshipped as gods: status, achievement, power; health, attractiveness, physical beauty; success, reputation, the competitive edge; certainty and the wrong kind of self-confidence; self-sufficiency … wow, there are still a lot of little “temples” that still need clearing out!
An idol is not necessarily inherently evil; it’s a good thing that I try to turn into a god-thing. Since no god-thing is really God, all my idols will inevitably disappoint and fail me. I’m grateful to have the possibility of further needed repentance and reorientation that aging can offer.
There are things we can only do in our 60s and 70s. There’s a lot that I could do in my 30s and 40s that I can’t do so well anymore, or can’t even do at all. I’m not as physically strong or mentally sharp as I can remember being. But there are things that I could not do in my 30s and 40s that I can only do in my 60s and beyond. I have acquired some wisdom and can begin to offer it to those interested in listening. I have been mastered by some truth and can share what how I’ve been shaped by it. I’ve learned to listen more than I speak, to ask more than I tell. I can be a grandpa. I have a friend in her 70s who’s going to Latin America to learn Spanish and see if that might equip her to be of service in a Hispanic context. I know many, many people whose most fruitful years are proving to be their latter years. This in no way minimizes the good work of earlier years, or to deny the good fruit borne during them; it’s simply noticing the emerging presence of a wonderful, bountiful new harvest.
I’m less certain and less worried about it. Jesus crashed into my life more than forty years ago. I have belonged to him ever since. It’s maybe better to say that I have belonged to him all along, but didn’t realize it until forty-some years ago. I have the greatest confidence in Jesus, but less confidence in my certainties. Getting to know Jesus better has made me more willing to say, “I don’t know” more often. Not about everything, not all the time, not in every circumstance. My convictions have become clearer, if fewer. Needing to be less “lead-pipe sure” has opened up some wonderful space for enjoying God’s mysteries. God’s mysteries aren’t so much “unknown unknowables,” they are more like wonders into which we get to enter but which we never master or control. Grace, love, faith, hope, reconciliation, salvation—these are large and very spacious realities into which Christ invites us by his Spirit. They’re more like the Louvre or Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts than an equation I can write on a notepad. We may explore them endlessly, and make ourselves more and more at home within them, but will never be able to say, “There’s nothing more here for me to see or learn or experience or get to know better.” Once I can let go of my misplaced certainties, I am enabled to explore the goodness and beauty and truth of Christ more fully and be inhabited by them more deeply.
It’s harder to maintain the illusion that I’m not going to die. We inhabit a ”culture of death,” in Pope John Paul II’s phrase: a world scarred by violence, war, brutality, hatred, bloodshed. Sometimes life feels like the endless “war of all against all.” And at the same time our culture of death seeks to sanitize and suppress our awareness of death. We are shown so much of it, from our movies and video games, to the stories and photographs of courageous journalists, to the never-ending stream of murders and violence that lead the local news and fill our various feeds. Desensitization sets in. We coin euphemisms: collateral damage, pregnancy reduction, friendly fire, passing away.
Since we have become capable of delivering so much deadly force in so many ways, we imagine ourselves capable of mastering death. Death becomes little more than a problem to be solved, a situation to be handled, an inconvenience to be managed. Funerals aren’t occasions to be sad or grief-stricken; they are reasons for another “celebration.”
But we’re all going to die, and aging brings us closer to that inevitability. Drawing closer to it invites us to reflect on our lives. Once they end, will they matter? Will anything matter, anything that we have loved or valued or sought or stood for? If it matters, why—what will make it matter? Aging won’t answer these questions, but it does pose them for our consideration and response.
I believe that our lives are preparation for a life which is abundant, a life that is eternal, a life that is life indeed. I believe that because Jesus tells us so, and I trust Jesus. I believe that, because of Jesus, God cares, and cares deeply, for all the many things which the cosmos doesn’t even know how to think about: community; beauty; justice; love; goodness; truth; friendship; hospitality; creativity; wisdom; adventure and so on endlessly.
Death may be inevitable, but because of Jesus, it does not have the last word. About anything or anyone. The last word belongs to the One who speaks the first word, whose Word gives all our words, including our names, their truest and most lasting meanings.