By Linda Ryan
There was a saying going around when I was in my late teens and early twenties, "Don't trust anyone over 30." Maybe that was the reason I was so miserable on my 30th birthday, or perhaps it was just a combination of events that, like conjunctions of planets and stars in the night sky, seemed either portents or markers of the way my life was going at the time. At any rate, on my 30th birthday, I felt like I was on the downhill side of life, especially when I got to the next saying, "Over 40 - over the hill." Sigh. It seemed at the time to go from bad to worse, age-wise.
The older I get these days, the more I look for things that address where my life is at the moment. I'm more likely to bookmark an AARP site than Jillian Michael's hardbody kind of athleticism, a medical site that has info on diabetes, arthritis, memory loss and catastrophic disease than pre-natal care, athletic injuries (not that I ever had any of those!) or exercises that feature turning one's body into a pretzel in the search for harmony and health. Sure, I search for harmony and health, but increasingly I see the focus moving toward younger folks, a different demographic, the "future" of our country, our world, or our church. Don't get me wrong, I'm not anti- youth. Far from it. I was supremely touched by an essay on Episcopal Café the other day by Jacob Nez called "Why ARE Youth In Church?" It spoke of their search for welcoming places in churches, churches that not only accepted them as youth but as Native American youth and full members of the Body of Christ who honored both their Christian faith and the respect of God's creation through practices from their traditional faith. They really made me think about how valuable such young people are, and how much we need them in our churches, our neighborhoods, and our lives.
On the other hand, I found an article on another site entitled "Aging Well: Practical theological reasons to value older people" by Missy Buchanan that also made me stop and think about people and the church, this time on the other end of the age spectrum. The article referenced work by Dr. Stephen Sapp who, among other qualifications, was a former chair of the governing council for the Forum on Religion, Spirituality and Aging. One point was a reminder that all of us are getting older, and that getting older does not mean valueless, even though the emphasis of culture and, at times, even the church tend to somewhat marginalize the elders in favor of attracting and attempting to retain families with children who presumably will grow up to be good members of the church themselves. In the time when seniors are encouraged to continue being active, keep fit, find new hobbies and interests and ways to interact with people, it is sort of the message that "You've had your turn, now please just sit down and leave things up to the young people." The article states that in less than 30 years "...there will be more 85-year-olds than five-year-olds," and Dr Sapp wonders how churches that don't really offer a lot for seniors and seem to have little interest in them will attract those very people into their congregations. It's a good question.
In many cultures and societies, elders are respected as keepers and sharers of wisdom acquired through living their lives. To be fair, there are homes and churches of all cultures and ethnicities where senior members are not shuttled off willy-nilly into "retirement communities" or hospitals, and who live at home, often with assistant from all the members of the family, participating in and sharing their wisdom through their presence. Senior members have that wisdom to share, stories to tell and lessons to teach. It's not about having them make all the decisions or have everything go their way; it's about allowing them the dignity and the respect to listen to their opinions and viewpoints, consider them as offerings of wisdom and experience, and allowing them to participate in any way they can. Prayer groups are wonderful experiences, but if it could be coupled with some sort of activity that produces something tangible, like knitting or crocheting a prayer shawl, then it is a contribution that a senior can make, even if they no longer have use of their legs. Listening to the children and youth, even young adults can be a pastoral activity that can be a lifeline to both. Quite often it is those in the second half of life who have the time, the patience and the experience to really listen and hear what is being said. Much of the time a person doesn't want a solution, just a shoulder and a sympathetic ear. Churches can probably come up with more activities that can utilize and maximize the benefit to not just the seniors but to the whole congregation as well.
Rather than shuffling seniors off to the side once their health starts to fail, their earning power is greatly reduced and they require more assistance rather than being able to render assistance, perhaps the church should realize that the Body of Christ consists of all ages and conditions: young, old, healthy, infirm, wondering, experienced, foolish, wise and the whole spectrum. When someone, anyone, youth or senior, looks beyond themselves and looks for guidance and spiritual growth, the church should be there with open arms and open minds to welcome them and bring them in. The ideal church should not be a museum for saints but rather a hospital for sinners, and all of us are sinners.
I really respect those Native youth who wrote so eloquently about their search and their desire to belong to the Body of Christ in a full, fruitful and accepted way. I'm glad there are places where they are not just welcome but embraced because they are so deserving of both. I also feel for the seniors who have been displaced in the life of their church simply because they are not seen as growth-potential. I dream of a church, a congregation, a place where value is not seen as the monetary or even the energy level a person can bring but rather the gifts they have inside them. Wisdom is not limited to the old, and searching is not limited to the young. The church that claims to follow Christ is one which honors and nourishes both in harmony and balance.
That, I believe, is a part of the kingdom work Jesus set for us to do - for all sorts and conditions of humanity.