Friday, August 1, 2014

Celebrate the Journey (Ecclesiastes 3:1-8) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

An elderly man had some serious hearing problems.  His family tried repeatedly to convince him to get a hearing aid.  Finally he went to the doctor and was fitted for a set of hearing aids that dramatically improved his hearing.  A month later he went back to the doctor for a checkup. The doctor said with a smile, "Your hearing is perfect. Your family must be really pleased that you can hear again."  The old man replied, "Who said anybody told them?   It’s been fascinating just listening to their conversations.” 

Today we celebrate the journey of life, a journey which represents the plan of God.  Today we recognize those who are 90 years old or above.  Why?  Because birthdays say you are valued, you are special, you are unique, your life is priceless.  The Bible and our Christian Faith, unlike our culture which glorifies youth only, affirms that every stage in the journey is significant, every stage is important, every stage is a gift from God, to be accepted and appreciated, to be faced with faith and trust and courage, from the beginning to the final stage of the journey. 

Some people steer clear of that 3 letter word – OLD.  “Don't you be calling me old.”  “Come over here and I'll show you what old is.”  Humor is critical at every stage.   An older member of our congregation in CO used to say - “The name senior citizen has got to go. The correct term now is “the chronologically gifted.”  He also said: “I don’t like the term old folk’s home senior housing.  I say the chronologically gifted reside in a mature congregate living community.

We soon learn that you can run from aging, but you can’t hide from it.  Today we often hear of products that are anti-aging, that fight the aging process, that slow down aging, that promise to make you look years younger.   Well, after-all, who would buy something that speeds up aging? The rapid aging of our American population called the “Graying of America” is one of the most significant forces shaping our culture.  In the United States the proportion of people aged 65 or older increased from 4% in 1900 to about 12% in 2000.  Experts estimate that about 17 % of the population will be 65 or older in 2020. 

The journey has been studied by the best and brightest thinkers for generations.  Erik Erikson, the 20th century developmental psychologist, famous for his eight stages of life writes:  “Older adults need to look back on life and come away with a sense of fulfillment.  Success at this stage leads to feelings of satisfaction and wisdom and the reassurance that they lived a meaningful life, while failure results in having many regrets and feelings of bitterness and despair over a life misspent and wasted.  Those who feel proud of their accomplishments will feel a sense of integrity. These individuals will attain wisdom, even when confronting death.

Artists have been inspired by the journey.   Some artists, like Renaissance artist Leonardo da Vinci scorned elderly faces as "monstrous wrecks.  Older persons didn't fare well under his brush.  Others like Baroque artist Rembrandt, painted old age with a nobility and power that no artist has ever approached. He recognized "the dignity and character of aged faces" and embraced "the marks of time as beautiful, mysterious, and rich."  Do you agree?

Rembrandt was fascinated with aging, his own included.  For instance at the height of his career, Rembrandt painted his “Self Portrait at the Age of 34.   Decked out in an elaborate and fashionable costume, Rembrandt looks self-assured and even snobbish. But nearly thirty years later in 1669, the year of his death, Rembrandt painted “Self Portrait at the Age of 63. In this painting he wears a simple peasant coat and beret. His face looks wise, humble, and peaceful.  Yes Rembrandt is an artist to grow old with."

The Bible looks at this final stage of life as a time of enrichment and fulfillment and considers old age a virtue and a blessing. The Hebrew word for old, zakein, means elder and is synonymous with "wise".  The Bible commands us to respect older persons because of their life experiences and wisdom.  Old age is considered a blessing from God.    The book of Genesis says: “Now Abraham was old, well advanced in years, and the Lord has blessed Abraham in all things. This is the length of Abraham’s life, 175 years.  Abraham breathed his last and died in a good old age, an old man full of years, and was gathered to his people.”  These verses ring with dignity and reverence toward older persons.

Without question there are challenges associated with aging.  Dealing with health issues and illnesses, like Alzheimer’s and physical decline and diminishment due to a lifetime of wear and tear on the body can be daunting.  There is the death of long-time friends and having to cope with grief and loss is common as we grow older.   We begin to lose our independence.  We need to learn to depend on others and accepting such losses and changes is difficult. 

God's desire is at whatever our stage along the journey, that we strive to embrace it with grace, that we have the spirit and will to accept our limitations and to reach out for help or accept offers of assistance from others with humility and gratitude. 

Some persons as they age become bitter and withdraw from those around them.   They isolate themselves, cut off ties with family and friends, and become virtual hermits.    Other people believe that even in the midst of increasing limitations, there is the possibility of a quality of life worth living.   When John Quincy Adams, our 6th president, was an elderly man, a young friend asked "How is John Quincy Adams today?" Adams replied:  “John Quincy Adams is very well, thank you.  But the house he lives in is sadly dilapidated. It is tottering on its foundations. The walls are badly shattered and the roof is worn. The building trembles with every wind, and I think John Quincy Adams will have to move out before long. But he himself is very well, thank you.”

The Bible declares that God isn’t finished with us as we age and still calls us to worship and service.  Abraham and Sarah are good examples.    Solomon writes in Ecclesiastes: “For everything there is a season and a time for every matter under heaven.”  God establishes seasons or special times in our lives.  We need to seek to understand God’s timing, God’s lessons, God’s moment, God’s purposes and plans in the seasons of our lives.  God wants to use us for His glory and purpose at all stages of life.  God is not finished with us when we grow older.  

I remember a friend, Bill Buettner, in his eighties, from the church I served in Santa Monica, who was extremely lonely when after 60 years of marriage, his wife died.  His children and grandchildren lived across country so he didn't see them often.  The church asked if he would like to volunteer with their Wednesday evening children’s ministry.  Being in his early 80’s he wondered about how it would work being with children.  But he started coming, telling stories, helping with meals and games, and loved it.  The kids started calling him grandpa; they would run up and talk with him and hug him on Sunday mornings.  He became a super-star on Sundays with the kids.  Bill said he had a new purpose for his life.  He helped in that ministry until his death.

Yes, God has created us in His image in such a way that our creative energies still flow as we grow older:  Tennyson was 83 when he wrote “Crossing the Bar;” Verdi was 74 when he produced Othello; Lawrence Welk was 89, when he stopped leading the band; Lucille Ball was 77, when she ended her brilliant comedic career; Jack LaLanne celebrated his 70th birthday by towing 70 boats containing 70 people for a mile across the Long Beach Harbor by holding the rope in his teeth, while handcuffed and wearing leg shackles, something I've been considering when I turn 70.  Mother Teresa was in her mid 80’s and still ministering to the poorest of the poor on the streets of Calcutta. Dick Enbert is going strong at 79 as the announce for the Padres.  Padres Broadcaster Jerry Coleman was 89 when he died after a distinguished life and career.  Aretha Franklin, at age 72, sang the National Anthem at Harvard's Commencement ceremonies in May of this year.

We ask questions at every stage of life's journey.  Some are unique to the particular stage but other questions are applicable for every stage like: “What is God’s purpose and am I fulfilling it?”  “What do I want to accomplish before I die?”  “Am I using my God given talents?”   “Am I going  stay engaged, stay involved, stay active or withdraw, retreat, and disengage from people and activities?”  “How can I be a good brother or sister, wife or husband, father or mother, uncle or aunt, grandfather or grandmother, great-grand father or great-grandmother, friend or neighbor?”  How can I glorify God?

In his book Nearing Home, Rev. Billy Graham offers the following reflections about growing older:  “When Coca-Cola changed its one-hundred-year-old formula in 1985, there was a public backlash and demands for the original, so within two short months, the company was forced to return the beverage to grocery shelves under the name of Coca-Cola Classic, spiking sales for the soft drink company. The conclusion of marketers was that the formula had stood the test of time. The trade-secret had trumped the new recipe, as proven by the millions of fans who did not want the "real thing" tampered with.

What does this have to do with growing old Graham continues? “Old is authentic. Old is genuine. Old is valuable. Some say old is even beautiful …. The older generation may have a hard time keeping up with the younger, but let's remember that the generations that follow are learning about growing old from us.  Are we good examples? While we have all made mistakes and would like to turn back the clock to correct some things, we know this is not possible. But the lessons we have learned from our successes and failures can help those following behind. The impact we can potentially have on them can mean the difference between leaving good memories in our place or simply being out of sight, out of mind.

I close with a quote from Norman Cousins:  “Death is not the greatest tragedy which can befall a person; rather, the tragedy is in what dies in a person, while he or she is alive.“   Remember the truth we hear in Romans 8: “Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ, nothing, not even age.”    No matter what your stage on the journey, may you always dedicate your life to bringing glory to God.  Amen!  

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