Today we are beginning our ‘Bless this mess’ series, a 4-week look at important family issues like multi-generational family relationships, the place of single adults in family life and marriage in the 21st century. We will not only be looking at how these issues play into our biological family relationships but how they affect our church family relationships as well. I don’t think it’s coincidence at all that one of the primary images the Bible uses to speak of the church is as a family. We are brothers and sisters in Christ. We have spiritual fathers and mothers. Why, even the most recognized sacramental element in church life, the Lord’s Supper, is a practice that is rooted in an ancient, traditional, holiday, family meal. Family references are everywhere in the Bible and so, we felt it was appropriate to talk about both our earthly family relationships along with our church family relationships as we try to bring some ‘blessing’ into what for many is a mess. And today’s ‘bless this mess’ topic is older adults. Now, when I initially saw that I was to speak on this topic I thought the reason I’d been asked to give this sermon was because I’ve spoken on the topic of caring for and helping shepherd older relatives in the recent past; I thought my previous insights had made me the obvious choice for speaking on this topic again. But, what I soon came to realize was this: the real reason I was asked to speak about older adults is because… well, I am one. It is true that I am by far the oldest adult on the preaching team, especially with Dave currently on sabbatical. I will be 65 next summer and so I am in the process of applying for Medicare. Just last week I received a ‘new-member’ tote-bag gift from the AARP. Apparently, Jennifer, my wife, signed us up. She says she’d told me she was going to do this, but either I didn’t hear her or I forgot she told me. So, I am in a different position than simply speaking on the dynamics of dealing with older family members because I am that older family member. And with this being the case, it has made preparing for this sermon very different for me. It’s forced me to be far more introspective than usual. So, I must tell you that while we will be looking into the Bible, which many of you know is my forte, my preparation time has been much more of a personal journey… And can I say as an aside, before I get to speaking about this personal journey, if you are looking for some practical guidance on caring for older adults and dealing with end of life issues, please do go online and listen to our earlier sermons on these subjects. I still hear from people frequently about how these sermons have been helpful during the difficult end-of-life days with a loved one. But with that said, the seriousness of my personal journey for this sermon was heightened by something our service design team asked me to share with you: they asked me to share the 3 things I wish everyone knew about what it’s like to be an older adult. I had to think very carefully about this. First, I had to decide if it was my responsibility to represent all fellow older adults or if was I free to simply speak for myself. Well, my conclusion was that it would be better if I spoke for myself today. But, even in speaking for myself I am fairly certain that many other older adults, however we define being older, will resonate with the 3 things I wish everyone else… family members, friends, co-workers and even my church-family members… knew about this older adult. So, here’s the first thing I wish everyone knew and this may surprise some of you: I don’t feel any differently now in my mind, my body or my spirit than I have for the past 35 years. Yes, I may at times tire a bit sooner than I used to, but my sense of my ability to think things through, my desire for engagement with the world, even most of my physical abilities, all seem pretty much the same. I don’t have a sense of myself as being older as in ‘worn out’ or ‘less vibrant’ at all… and I honestly haven’t sensed anything different in the core of who I am and how I see myself in the world for a very long time. Of course, I know I’ve changed physically. I know I look older. But this older face masks a young-at-heart-ready-to-get-after-it soul. I wish everyone knew that growing older doesn’t necessarily change your sense of who you are or who you can be in in the world. Secondly, I wish everyone knew that I am well-aware of the moments when my age, in our youth-focused and even youth-worshiping culture, marginalizes me and even in some situations makes me invisible. Now, I have not felt much of this here at Grace from our staff or from our people. But, there are plenty of times outside of this safe community that the simple fact of my being older makes others treat me as if I am irrelevant… and I wish everyone knew that I can tell immediately when this is happening. The third thing I wish everyone knew is that I am constantly aware of the ticking clock. I know that I am living in the back half of a life and it’s passing away very quickly. And this ticking clock is both a terror and a motivator. It is a terror because there is nothing I can do about the passage of time… tomorrow becomes yesterday so quickly that it is frightening… literally frightening. And yet the ticking clock is also a motivator for me. It keeps me working towards something that I want more than I can express… I want my last years to be inspired and inspiring… I want to finish well… but what I’ve come to realize, especially now that we are talking about family, is that I don’t believe that my finishing well is possible if I try to do this alone… you see, I believe it is a family task… both a biological family task and a church family task… And I also believe with all my heart that this is a task in which everyone, younger or older, has a role to play… me finishing well is something we must do together… as family.
The Bible gives us numerous examples of people who finished well. Abraham, the father of the Jewish nation and the first great character of the Bible, finished well. We see him late in life walking with God and concerned for the well-being of others. He finished well. And Moses, probably the 2nd great character of the Bible, the man who led the Jews out of slavery in Egypt, finished well. He finished on task, trusting God, leading with authority, training younger leaders to take his place and willing to do whatever was needed to faithfully and humbly follow God. He, too, finished well. But the one person we find in the Bible that finishes well that has really captured my heart is Jesus’ disciple John. When we first meet John he is an impetuous, self-absorbed young man who has just answered Jesus’ call to follow him. Jesus gave his new disciple a nickname: ‘son of thunder’ and that wasn’t a compliment. But we see John maturing over time… we know that while most likely in his late 20’s or early 30’s he took on much of the responsibility of leading the early church in Jerusalem as well as the responsibility of caring for Jesus’ mother. And while leading the church, sometime in middle age he was arrested, tried and then exiled to an island named Patmos just off the Turkish coast for the crime of preaching about Jesus. It was while in exile on this island that he had his great vision of the risen Jesus that led to the writing of his book The Revelation. We also know when he was released from exile he moved to the city of Ephesus in what is now Turkey and we believe that it was from there that he wrote his 3 short letters that we find in the Bible, 1st, 2nd and 3rd John. And we are also certain that it was during his last years, possibly in his 90’s, while still living in Ephesus, that he wrote a book filled with his personal recollections of his years with Jesus, the book we call the Gospel of John. So, what we are essentially given is an overview of John’s entire life through his writings we find in the New Testament… we see his life from his twenties through his 90’s. And what this grand overview of his life tells me is that John finished well. He figured out what was truly important and he majored in those important things; and just to cut to the chase, John found that there were only two important things: first, making the focus of your life Jesus and then second, loving others like Jesus loved others. I have done years of work in John’s writings, and if there is one thing you can say about them it’s this: John always hit his primary target: and that target was lifting up Jesus and telling us to love one another. I know why John felt it was important to continually lift up Jesus… he’d not only followed him for three years and seen him risen from the dead, he’d also had a vision in which he’d seen Jesus as he is right now in the heavens: the powerful ruler of the universe that he truly is! And this left a huge impression on him. It’s no wonder that when the elderly John started writing his gospel he began with a grand paragraph of praise to Jesus. We should turn to these verses. John 1:1-4 Page ??? In the beginning the Word already existed. You know someone is serious when the first word of their book is a direct quote of the first word of the Book of Genesis, the first book in the Bible: en arche: in the beginning. And we know exactly what John meant when he used the phrase ‘The Word.’ He’d directly called Jesus by this name in his letter we call 1st John. In the beginning the Word (Jesus) already existed. The Word (Jesus) was with God, and the Word (Jesus) was God. He (Jesus) existed in the beginning with God. God created everything through him, and nothing was created except through him. The Word (Jesus) gave life to everything that was created, and his life brought light to everyone. (John 1:1-4) This is a powerful statement about who Jesus is, how powerful he is and how much authority he has! This is the Jesus John rightfully says should be the focus of our lives. And John also wrote these things in his shorter letters about loving others: And this is God’s commandment: We must believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and love one another. Just as Jesus commanded us. (1John 3:23) And ‘I am writing to remind you, dear friends, that we should love one another. This is not a new commandment, but one we have had from the beginning. Love means doing what God has commanded us, and he has commanded us to love one another, just as you heard from the beginning. (2 John 5-6) John finished well because he practiced what he preached: first, he focused on Jesus: loving Jesus, praising Jesus, worshiping Jesus and telling others about Jesus… and then on loving others. From all that we can tell John ended his days doing just this: loving Jesus and others. And my coming to understand the importance of these simple, yet profound priorities has been life-altering, really. If I am going to finish well in the limited amount of time I have ahead of me, then my life needs to be characterized by these two things: a deep knowledge of Jesus, I want to know him, not know about him and a deep love for others… a deep love for everyone, from those closest to me to those who I find are difficult to love. But, again, I know that I cannot do this alone… no one can do this alone… we older adults need our families, and by this I mean our biological and our church family focusing on helping us finish well. So, what I have done is put together a list of a few things that I know I must keep in mind if I am going to finish well. And then I’ve added a few practical ways that those of you who are younger can help make the later years of those of us who are older, as I said earlier, inspired and inspiring.
Older adults: I have said that finishing well involves knowing Jesus and loving others. And I want to reemphasize something I said earlier. Knowing about Jesus in not the same as knowing Jesus. I am possibly the most likely person in this room to miss this distinction. I am all about biblical background, history, language… all the things that tell me about Jesus… and it’s really easy for me swerve off into learning about Jesus’s world rather than getting to know Jesus. But Jesus never said, ‘Study all you can about my ancient-near-eastern cultural givens and I will give you rest.’ He said, ‘Come to me and I will give you rest.’ I want to challenge all of us older folk to focus time on ‘coming to Jesus,’ to focus on getting to know him. Sure, I know it helps to know some background and history to aid in this process, but the only way to become truly inspired and inspiring is to be as close to Jesus as we can be. Let’s do this first… So, what this means for me, and what I am about to say may not sit well with some of you, but I’ve decided to do my best to avoid sinking my time into highly-nuanced, theological intricacies… and in particular, I’ve decided to set aside all end-times-scenario discussions. I’m living with the assumption that I will die someday and I’d like to get to that day well. If by chance Jesus comes back in some big way in the meantime, so be it; but my hope lies in passing through death and being greeted by my savior. And when I do, I want to enter eternity confident that I know who Jesus is… because I’ll already have spent a lot of time with him! This is where we have to start. Older adults, can we do this together? Can we start by making Jesus the focus of our lives? If we do this I guarantee it will change our hearts AND our family dynamics. I can promise you this.
And then there is the ‘loving others’ part. I feel this starts with thinking carefully about how I use my time. I believe that I must be proactive about reaching out to younger people… and not to wisen them up or let them know how much I know or to shame them for making what I consider foolish choices, but to listen to them and be a loving, guiding presence in their lives. Bottom line: I am not free to be a crank. I want to hear more ‘That’s interesting’ and ‘Tell me more about that!’ and ‘I’m sorry’ coming out of my mouth. I’ve come to realize that I don’t have the right as a follower of Jesus to be a participant in of our cultural slide downward toward incivility. So, this means thinking twice before I speak or push send. The truth is younger people are longing for the wisdom that older, more experienced people can bring into their lives… they want mentors… they do! And we have so much to give to others, but how we give what we have is really important. I’ve been thinking about all of the places I can reach out and love other younger people: my children, their spouses… their friends… my grandchildren… their friends… their friend’s parents… younger people in my neighborhood, in this church… the points of contact go on and on if I am willing to open up my eyes, step out and use my time well as I work to finish well.
And then younger family members… younger church family… we need you to help those of us who are older, finish well. And one way you can do this by simply recognizing that we are people… sure, there may be disconnects over technology or current cultural trends or even political things… but please don’t patronize older folks or fall into the trap that says all older people are lost in the past and unable and unwilling to learn anything new from you. Don’t stereotype, please. Can I ask a favor? Could you suffer well my ignorance of your world and believe me when I say I want to know about your life? I may not get it all, but it doesn’t mean I don’t care to know. Hey, the truth is that most older people feel honored when younger people, family members or friends reach out to them. When you do you give us life. One thing that older people tend to have is time and one of the best uses of our time is being with you. Could you offer us your time from time to time and could you respond to our offers of time in a way that shows that you see us as significant people? And, by the way, I need to take these things to heart as a younger person, as well… my dad is 85 and still doing really well, but I need to be careful not to forget that he probably has 3 things that he wishes I knew about him as an older person and part of my role in his life is to give him the time to tell me about these things and help him finish well. If we all just work to keep these simple things in mind I know it will get us started down a road that can bring so much richness into all our lives.
When Jennifer and I were a young couple in our early twenties, and Jennifer was pregnant with our first child, an older couple, Doc and Mary, a couple with 3 high school age daughters along with another couple in their early 30’s asked us and another young couple who’d just had their first child to start a small group with them. I’ve talked about this group before I’m sure. What happened as we met was that we started a journey of sharing life together that is still ongoing today decades and multiple generations later. I cannot even begin to quantify all of wisdom that the older couples in that group poured into our lives over the years, but I know that much of that wisdom was given to me as I watched Doc finish well. I don’t have the time to go into details now but here is some of what I said at Doc’s funeral: Doc was a friend… a counselor… a spiritual father… and in the end, I believe that Doc’s greatest legacy will be found in the small yet profound ways that he influenced so many of us toward living well for Jesus… living well as husbands and wives… living well as parents… living well as ambassadors of God’s kingdom. Doc showed us that as we live out this short, precious life, nothing is more important than keeping our focus on Jesus: there is no question that this was Doc’s focus and the world has been changed in ways unimaginable and will continue to be changed in ways unimaginable for generations because Doc stayed the course: he followed his Lord and he loved others well.’ A couple of years ago Jennifer and I took a brave Doc-and-Mary-like step. We invited a younger couple with college and high school age children, two young, newly married couples and a younger, single woman to join the two of us old folks and meet as a small group. And I’m sure you know why we did this. We want to finish well and they are helping us… we are helping one another… we are focusing on Jesus and loving one another. And you know what I am finding? I am finding once again that we can experience the wonderful truth that together we can find ways to be a blessing to one another… older people and younger people… we can be God’s way of bringing blessing to this mess.