A Meditation on Being "Old and Full of Years"

"Life can seem more deeply disappointing as you accumulate years and experiences...Yet all of us, at every age, struggle with how life isn't working."

"Autumn is really the best of seasons; and I'm not sure that old age isn't the best part of life." - C. S. Lewis

The Christian sense of eternal life seems more and more foreign to our present culture.  It seems that we have a laser focus on getting this present life in this present version of my body to completely fulfill all my hopes for happiness and purpose. That's a lot to load onto a relatively small object over a pretty short span of decades.

It also makes getting into the upper decades less popular. No longer are you seen as increasing in wisdom, being able to share from experience. You are now seen as fragile, mentally and physically questionable, more prone than those younger to be limited in what you can take on.

Two years ago an article appeared in the New Yorker titled "What Old Age Is Really Like". The author Ceridwen Dovey tells of submitting a draft of a novel to her editor. It was about the lives of two friends now in their later years who are rather curmudgeonly. The editor‘s response was "So what else are they other than ‘old’?"

She realized she hadn't created unique characters, she'd simply adopted dominant cultural ideas about older people. Her editor's question woke her up to look for the individual behind the wrinkles.

For much of my life I have actively avoided friendships with the very old, totally buying all of the cultural assumptions about "the aged". I assumed we had very little in common. When I became a Jesus-follower and started regularly attending church, I began to take a new look at the "old people", now my fellow worshippers and my mentors. I was the surprised recipient of God’s humor and grace. Wonderful people helped me, educated me, tolerated me and boosted me. They held me up in deep grief. They became the living definition of ‘blessing.’

As I read the Bible, I was struck by the fact that Abraham and Sarah are God’s key people, and their lives only seem to get richer as they get older. Their first and only child is born in late—very late—age. In chapter 25 Abraham finally dies, having been preceded by Sarah some years earlier, and the Bible describes him as dying ‘...in a good old age, an old man and full of years.’ His death is described as being ‘...gathered to his people.’ It seemed like the best parts of their lives were the latter ones, and it was actually after death that the real party began.

The same language is used of Job. At the end of Job's story the Lord restores his fortunes, giving him twice as much as he had before, and blesses him with more children. The Lord is described as blessing his later days more than the earlier ones. The book concludes with this statement: ‘And Job died, an old man, and full of days.’ It's not like old griefs are wiped away, or even diminished. It's more like the deeper awareness of God's gifts that comes with a lifetime of experience contains those griefs and gives blessing a deeper richness.

Full of years’ and ‘full of days'

As in Ms. Dovey’s novel, it's easy to assume that old age leaves people worn out, bitter, empty, self-focused. For some, it may. But our assumptions tend to prescribe a set role for the old, as we do the poor, the widowed, the sick, the politician...pretty much everybody that isn't a part of our present experience-set. Then comes the formation of assumptions. This step is usually followed by dismissal. We want to be with people like ourselves.  We understand them.

The first time I experienced elder-stereotyping, I looked around to see who we were talking about. I shared the feeling of scientist Lewis Wolpert who wrote, ‘How can a seventeen-year-old like me suddenly be eighty-one?’

Life can seem more deeply disappointing as you accumulate years and experiences. I know people my age I avoid because they are still so angry at how circumstances derailed their expectations and dreams, or, as my dad used to say, ‘That was another place where life threw me off my horse'. Yet all of us, at every age, struggle with how life wasn't working.

For Christians who come to understand that life is neither short nor inconsequential, who discover the truth of Scripture, the reality and wonder of Jesus, the stunning changes wrought in the world by the advent of belief in him, and the almost unbelievable transformations in people's lives as they understand and believe, there is no one—repeat, no one, from brand new baby to those even older than I—who isn't potentially exciting to meet and worth getting to get to know.

I see God all over the place, in young and old, wealthy and struggling, former convict and former college professor. Are you becoming aware of that too?

I invite you to resist classifying the people you meet by the grayness of their hair, the depth of their wrinkles, the long accumulation of their experiences.

We share a King who invites us, even urges us, to be family beyond the ‘coolness’ of our culture and even the bitterness of our age-specific struggles and memories.

Whether we are ‘young and filling up with years’ or ‘old and full of years’, we are invited to help, to encourage, to family-ize each other, and to be ever wary of making conclusive judgments based on categories like age, education, or background. We can resist raising up stereotyped barriers of any kind to relationships.

I’ve been impressed all my Christian life, since I first read it, with the kind of community described in the early church recorded in very few words in  Acts 4. In the 34th verse Dr. Luke writes, ‘There was not a needy person among them...’! Note especially that it doesn't mention age or circumstances.