Friday, June 22, 2012

Age, Faith, and Action

"Where are all the old people?"

That's the question popular Christian preacher Francis Chan asks in a video exhorting elderly Christians to not let age keep them from participating in ministry.

He says he's not seeing the vibrancy of service and sacrifice among older Christians that he'd expect to see in people who've lived for Christ for decades and decades.  Chan asserts that Christian senior citizens aren't "risking" their lives enough for the Gospel.  They're spending too much time in front of the television, and not enough time on short-term missions trips.

And yes, maybe some Christian retirees do spend too much time on the golf course, or taking plush Caribbean cruises, or buying too many vowels from Pat and Vanna.  But where are the vast majority of elderly believers really spending the time Chan thinks they should be spending on Christian stuff?

Old Age Isn't Just a State of Mind

More than likely, these elderly believers are visiting their doctors, right?  They're cruising the specialist circuit, where hip doctors are trendy but not in the way young people use the term.  They're getting cataracts removed, going for prostate screenings, having their arthritis medicines strengthened, and visiting neurologists to check on their dementia.  Or they're sitting in doctors offices while their better halves test the limits of modern medicine.

And then there's Chan, fit and buff at 44, melodramatically pointing out that he's not getting any younger.

I don't know much about being old, either, but I'm seeing what old age does to people in my own family.  And I fully understand why my parents and their elderly friends aren't physically bustin' out for Christ like a converted Richard Simmons.

Chan is looking for action, for people getting out there and and changing and charging.  But with all due respect, can Christian service ignore the aging process?  How many people can physically do at 74 the same things they were doing at 44?

It's not like my parents and their friends, at their advanced ages, aren't doing stuff for Christ.  My father is more than three years into dementia's increasingly vice-like grip, but he spends hours - literally - every day reading the Bible and praying.  My mother prays during several extended intervals of time throughout each day, as do a couple of her elderly friends, in their respective homes.  My aunt, now in a retirement home, has taken it upon herself to personally comfort and advocate for some other residents who are sicker than she is.  Forty years ago, all of these people were deeply involved in church-based activities, but is there anything wrong with the more subdued ministries with which they continue pursuing today?  Just recently, a missionary friend of mine in Asia was effusive in her thanks to me for prayers on her behalf from my family, and my mother in particular.

Name a Biblical Character Who Was Retired

Actually, I know what Chan is saying:  there is no such thing as retirement from Christian ministry.  Many evangelical Americans figure that retirement from employment extends to their service - or lack of it - to God.  Chan doesn't explicitly say it in this video, but "retirement" is not a Biblical concept, which is a good thing, because his generation - which includes me - probably won't get to ever retire.  Frankly, however, until they've walked a mile in orthotic shoes, who can tell our elders they're not holding up their end of the Christian community's ministry spectrum?

Simeon and Anna spent all of their old age in the temple, waiting for the promised Christ.  And they were rewarded for their faithfulness - not the degree of their physical exertion.

How many Christian senior citizens are frittering away their retirements anyway?  I know of several elderly Christians who volunteer regularly at various charities here in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.  Arlington's homeless shelter and food pantry survive on donated labor from senior citizens, and the crisis pregnancy shelter receives all sorts of clothing from older church ladies who spend their days knitting booties, mittens, hats, and blankets in pastel rainbows of color.

Other elderly parents today are having to baby-sit grandkids so their children can remain employed in our rough economy.  Some elderly Christians have had to go back to work themselves, since their retirement accounts have been wiped out by the Great Recession.  Other elderly Christians, unlike white-collar pastors, have done manual labor all their work lives, and now that they've retired, their physical bodies are literally worn out.

Chan is indisputably, 100% correct that none of us knows how long our lives here on Earth will last.  We need to make sure each day counts for Christ.

But how our days count for Christ might not look like what Chan seems to think they should look like.  Early on in my Dad's senility, I fretted about all the time he spent in his office (my brother's former bedroom), reading his Bible.  Shouldn't he be doing something more active?  But then I realized - how many better ways are there for any of us to spend our time?

Hasn't the Church Spent Years Marginalizing Old People?

Yes, somebody's gotta get out and do the heavy-lifting for the Kingdom, so to speak.  Somebody's gotta teach Sunday School classes, go on short-term missions trips, and mow lawns for widows.  And thankfully, a lot of Christian senior citizens already do these things, even if Chan doesn't see it in his community.  But then again, after years of rock-and-roll seeker services perpetrated against the parents of our Boomer generation, how many senior citizens are left in our churches these days?

For the past forty years or so, the evangelical church in North America has not done an exceptional job in respecting our elders.  When then-middle-aged congregants protested the incessant focus on attracting young people to church with unconventional music styles and a refutation of liturgical elements, baby boomers blithely dismissed such intransigence as an unloving response to change, and shrugged their shoulders when older people began leaving the church.  Might the reason Chan doesn't see many elderly Christians participating in ministry stem from the fact that because so many churches have become so youth-centric, places for senior citizens to serve are now few and far between?  Even for the remnant of senior citizens who still attend our post-modern churches?

Churches which, by the way, are beginning to discover that all of those old fogies weren't so wrong after all - those hymns and liturgies aren't as bad as the boomers said they were.

Maybe, then, we should stop and figure out what the senior citizens in our congregation need - and how they can help with other needs - before we criticize how they're doing the things people half their age may not even be doing well.

After all, since the evangelical church has spent decades telling older folks they're irrelevant, might it be a tad disingenuous to now tell them they're not doing enough?

Not that Christian senior citizens deserve a free pass from active involvement in church.  None of us deserve anything, no matter how old we are.  It's just that as we get closer to the end of our journey towards sanctification, the ways God physically allows us to serve Him might involve a different posture.

Kneeling, for example, can happen in our hearts, even if not in our knees.
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