Not too long after joining our vibrant and decidedly young church plant, our 30-something pastor invited the congregation to look around at the “elderly” people in their midst. With a mixture of laughter and some embarrassment, necks began craning. A bit chagrined, those few of us with gray or little hair joined in the laughter. He said that we were great sources of wisdom and mentoring for those coming behind. Later, my wife light-heartedly advised our pastor that if he ever used the term “elderly” to describe her in the future, she was out of there. Embracing our aging is an uneasy alliance. A short book has helped me a great deal to get my arms around being an elder. I recommend it.
J.I. Packer in Finishing Our Course with Joy, the latest of his many marvelous writings, begins the book in his usual forthright manner: “We grow old.” While Packer falls into the self-described “oldest old” category—those above 85—his audience is those 65 and older. In this short book, after cataloging the physical and mental consequences of aging, he presents the heart of his message: to debunk the assumptions of the culture and the church that the elderly are only recipients, not practitioners of service to others.
Beginning with Psalm 92’s emphasis on fruitfulness in old age, Packer’s thesis is: “[S]o far as our bodily health allows, we should aim to be found running the last lap of the race of our Christian life, as we would say, flat out. The final sprint, so I urge, should be a sprint indeed.” He recognizes that this contrasts sharply with what many Americans assume is the normal and mature thing to do—slow down, relax, enjoy your life, you’ve earned a rest. His insight is that there is a specific temptation that lurks amidst the elder years and the church does little to help resist it by relieving the “Q-tips” from any serious responsibilities. In fact, most churches cater to the elderly with small trips and social events, helping them slip into a slower life of leisure, travel, and crosswords until they are called home. This is “one of the huge follies of our time” he says forthrightly, a belief which deserves to be debunked as unbiblical, narcissistic, and a squandering of all that God has built into one’s life for such a time as this. I agree.
Other than the humility borne of accepting bodily limits and loss of societal status Packer discusses the vocation or calling for the final phase of life. As my wife and I both grapple with this question in our latter years, the third chapter on “Keeping Going” was the most valuable to us. Anyone older than or approaching 65 needs to consider thinking about and planning for what Packer outlines here as our work ahead. He sees God using this final phase as the time where he hones and buffs us into Christ’s likeness before calling us home.
As such, he says, we first need to overcome the age-specific allure of using retirement as a warrant to make self-indulgence our priority, a time where we call our own shots, do what we desire, since we no longer have to commute, wear a tie, or answer to a boss. Yet, quoting Billy Graham, he affirms with him that the word “retire” is not in the Bible. The great heroes of the faith finish the race well, bursting the tape as I was taught when beginning to run the quarter mile, not simply jogging the last steps as fatigue grabs legs and lungs.
In personal terms, this winding down may seem natural enough. Not only has the world pensioned us elders off, we are starting to feel that our bodies are running out of steam, so that reducing the demands we make on ourselves can even seem like appropriate self-care. By moving to think this way, however, we undermine, diminish, and deflate the role we have been prepared for in this last lap, reducing us from laborers in Christ’s kingdom to sympathetic spectators; more passengers whom society or the congregation carries by means of their exertions.
And here is where the tension lies for my wife and I as a couple and for many of our peers. If we have the health, and if we have the means, should we not enjoy what we couldn’t in our more constrained youth? After a life of work don’t we owe it to ourselves to take a nap or a long lunch or travel, to enjoy what I’ve come to call “adult day camp.”
Packer says no—that this freedom provides us the opportunity for serious catechetical (not simply devotional) Bible study and intergenerational leadership through influencing younger persons’ lives with wisdom and caring as older mentors. Keep learning and teach others.
But more than accomplishing these tasks, Packer is urging upon those of us who are finishing the race to run it with zeal. An uncommon word, zeal is how he sums up the attitude he encourages among his generation. In fact, zeal is a word God uses to describe himself and the approach that led Jesus to the cross—zeal for the Kingdom. This is not to the point of burnout or exhaustion but the implication is that, particularly in old age, vigorous work and faithful commitments are acts of faith fueled by our ultimate hope in the One who gives us zeal, God himself.
As I was finishing this little gem of a book, I was reminded of a sunny and warm kayak ride I had taken a few weeks earlier in Florida. Setting out from the dock, I paddled by one large boat after another, all lined up in front of beautiful condos sitting along the channels leading out into the bay. I began to notice that many of these boats had names that spoke of a hope for the good life: Dad’s Dream; Finally; No Egrets; and Last Office. The one that especially caught my eye was a particularly large boat emblazoned with the name Contentment. As I looked up at this massive craft, I found myself wondering, “Is this guy really content now?” Not only was it a cash-eating cow, but there it sat, gathering barnacles and the deterioration that accompanies any idle boat--or life for that matter.
I think Packer has it right. As hard as it may be, even in old age we are called, prepared for, and needed by those who come after us. Thus we persist, we run. Indeed, we are to run and keep running until we hear Christ say “well done.” In that we can be content.
This article first appeared on the Washongton Institute for Faith and Vocation website, March 2014. http://www.washingtoninst.org/7665/the-last-lap-vocation-for-the-elderly/