By David Sebastian
Saint Jerome, in his commentary on Galatians, talks about the time when John the Beloved, Bishop of Ephesus, was no longer able to preach, teach, or even stand. Parishioners would carry him to his seat in the church. Each Sunday he would say to the assembled congregation, “Little children, love one another.”1 Many years of leading, discipling, counseling, preaching, and teaching were reduced into a simple but important message of love.
“Keep it simple” is wisdom for any age, but it becomes the chief developmental task for people fifty-five years of age and older. Pastors and other congregational leaders will serve older adults well if they keep this stage of development in mind when discipling believers.
The following thoughts are shared out of a question posed to me by a pastor friend. What might older adult discipleship look like in a local congregation? This is my 30,000 feet impression of a context for ministering with older adults. This article is not an operational plan for discipleship, but only the reflection of a lifelong disciple of Jesus.
Simplification of our Situation
Regardless of our background, we all are part of some system known as family. Seeking harmony in families is a path of wisdom. “The one who troubles his family will inherit nothing, and the fool will be a servant to the wise person” (Proverbs 11:29). Fractured relationships within families are one of the greatest regrets in older adulthood. Regarding relationships, St. Paul admonishes, “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone” (Romans 12:18).
Our roles change as we move into our older adult years. If we have moved healthily through life, we have come to the point of letting our children go. Ideally, we no longer give directional or financial support to our adult children. Parenting and grandparenting should be less stressful as older adults’ step back and give responsibility to adult children. However, studies show this task of healthy development has not gone so well for many older adults. Many older adults are emotionally and financially supporting adult children. It should be also noted many adult children are supporting their parents.2
Congregational leaders help us to appreciate our diminishing parental responsibilities and, as needed, assist us in untangling the web of unhealthy family relationships.
Many older adults work a lifetime building a reputation in the workplace, home, community, and church. Skills are honed, degrees are pursued, and résumés are developed to leave a legacy of productivity in the life. When retiring, many of those former markers of status are left behind. Gold watches, rocking chairs, and collegial best wishes often prove to be inadequate. Many retirees find it difficult to move into the stage of life where being replaces doing. People become depressed when thinking about how to fill their days with meaning and purpose.
Congregational leaders help us to understand titles and accomplishments are only temporary markers along the way and not trophies to be touted proving personal value and worth.
Simplification of Physicality
Popular culture masks the scientific reality, beginning in the late twenties, our bodies begin to deteriorate and perform less effectively. Instead of embracing physical decline as inevitable, we invent unhealthy slogans, such as, “I am as good as anyone,” or “I am as strong as I ever was.” Part of living a holy life is to affirm our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit. At each stage of life, we should be mindful of what we put into our bodies. We exercise our bodies appropriately to our life situation. We participate in service activities aligned with our physical stamina and do not overextend ourselves to impress others.
Congregational leaders help us to be mindful of our physical realities by providing healthy options for fellowship, service, and worship.
Simplification of Finances
The older adult years typically show a diminished income. Instead of having a modestly growing income, allowing for savings set aside for retirement, now older adults adjust to living on their savings and investments. This is an adjustment to a new reality often evoking the fear of, “Will I have enough?” If people have planned wisely, most adults should have a diminished but adequate income for their life expectancy. One of the greatest gifts older adults can give to their adult children is to have planned wisely for retirement so to not be a financial burden to their families. However, studies show many older adults have not planned adequately for retirement and require ongoing employment in retirement years. The problem is many older adults, for one reason or the other, do not maintain their income because they are forced to retire. High paying jobs after fifty-five years of age are difficult to find. Generosity to benevolent causes in older adult years may come in the form of estate planning rather than percentage giving from social security and pension funds. Scripture reminds us, “For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it” (I Timothy 6:7).
Congregational leaders help us to embrace generosity by providing retirement and estate planning prior to retirement years and sound financial guidance during our diminished years of earning capacity.
Simplification of Character
Character has often been defined as who you are when no one is looking. Many people spend a lifetime trying to become what they think others want them to be. In emotionally healthy older adulthood, there is the possibility of shedding this burdensome mantle of doing what others think and simply enjoying the freedom of being oneself. In moving to the later stage of life there is a shift from doing to being. This shift from doing to being at times can appear as selfishness. However, this augmentation of character can also be manifested as mature adults living a life of pure joy. Guilt no longer becomes the motivating factor in discipleship. Mature adults begin to evaluate time, talent, and treasure by what brings them joy. Out of an abundance of joy not duty older adults live out their golden years. The benediction of older adult years may be summarized, “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit” (Romans 15:13).
Congregational leaders help us to move from bitterness and vain regrets of unfulfilled expectation to the joy of living in the grace and benediction of the triune God.
Simplification of Spiritually
“In those days Hezekiah became ill and was at the point of death. The prophet Isaiah son of Amoz went to him and said, “This is what the Lord says: Put your house in order, because you will die; you will not recover” (2 Kings 20:1–2).
A couple of years ago, my four-year-old granddaughter stared at my face and said, “Grandpa, you are old. You are going to die.” Through her young eyes she saw something many older adults fail or refuse to see—we are going to die. Playwright Woody Allen once said, “I don’t fear death. I just don’t want to be there when it happens.” Older adults need to be reminded, “Just as a man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgement” (Hebrews 9:27).
To get your house in order is to understand the importance of arranging affairs, by solving complex problems, to embrace simplicity and the peace it brings. By nature, we are creatures of procrastination. But spiritual maturity is to embrace every season of life. God has placed within us an inner momentum to grow, and part of life is to prepare for death.
For the older adult, the challenge is to maintain dignity and to find meaning in each stage of life. Planning for life’s end allows disciples of Christ the freedom to decide and there is power in a decision. Older adults need to make funeral arrangements, establish a last will and testament, execute a durable power of attorney, create a living will declaration, and provide designation of a health care representative.
Studies show conversions are not plentiful in this last stage of adulthood. Simplification for those who choose not to embrace the Christian hope are often expressed,
• When you are dead, you are dead.
• One world is enough, I have no interest in a world to come.
• I have no desire to live forever.
While older adulthood is not a fertile field for evangelism, we are still called to proclaim the Gospel in word and deed.
Christian discipleship in older adult years helps believers to think through their theology regarding the hope within. Before senescence becomes a reality, older adults need to be mindful of the meaning of eternal life, the second coming of Christ, the resurrection, the final judgement, heaven, and hell. These themes help older adults approach the future with hope rather than fear. Simplifying spirituality enables older adults to confess with their mouth those things that will not be left behind. “And now these three things remain: faith, hope, and love. But the greatest of these is love” (2 Corinthians 13:13).
Congregational leaders help us to prepare adequately for the things we will leave behind and to embrace with simple hope the things that last forever.
EPILOGUE: AN APOLOGY ON GROWING OLDER
As we think about becoming old it is not always what we thought or have been told. The mirror on the wall does not lie but the calendar of the heart tempts us to deny. The mind can encourage us to believe youthful attainments must still be achieved. Wisdom is heeding the bodies complaints not merely living without restraints. And with thoughtful reflection, the mind is emboldened, to remind us the past was not always so golden. Accepting a future with some limitation need not produce fear or intimidation. For aging is neither weakness nor lack provided we move forward and do not shrink back. Faithful living demands our best and does not allow on our laurels to rest. So, when life’s journey ends, we will welcome God’s compliment, “Well done, my friends.”