We’re all doing it. We’ve little control of it. We celebrate it at key points with increasing relish. You can get surgery to help with it. But ultimately you can’t avoid it. Ageing! And in all my years of ministry I’ve never preached on it. That’s interesting in itself. Why don’t we hear more about something that is probably one of the big issues we all face but probably don’t want to. But Jonathan Swift – the 18th century satirist – had a different take on our common avoidance of thinking about ageing: ‘No wise man ever wanted to be younger.’  Really?! We want to be wise and young, but it is rare to find both in one person.

We’re also part of an ageing society. Look at massive change taking place in our society. This is the reason we’re considering investing more in missioning amongst older generations.

uk-ageing-demographic-crisis

But how do we approach ageing as disciples of Jesus? It appears God is more concerned about maturity than mere chronology – how old we are. We’ll look at two bible passages. The first in Psalm 92:12-15 gives us a picture of maturity. The psalmist is talking about being righteous. And he says that even when such a person becomes old they will be fruitful, green, and full of sap! In other words a passionate heart is always young and full of life. You know the kind of older person I’m talking about. You come way from being with them, and they lift your spirits – no matter how old they are. On the other hand you want to get away as soon as you can from an older person whose spirit has withered.

‘Age’ is usually thought about in terms of loss – of significance, role, health, and our life-partner. As John O’Donohue says in his beautiful essay, Ageing: the Beauty of the Inner Harvest, ‘Ageing is so frightening because it seems that your autonomy and independence are forsaking you against your will… old age can be a vulnerable time. Many people, as they age, get very worried and anxious… The new solitude in your life can make the prospect of ageing frightening.’ Life is never easy, but ageing undoubtedly presents a whole new set of tough challenges. In spite of its obvious difficulties , our Psalm suggests positive possibilities that come with ageing.

We may start to understand these benefits, if we think about the two major tasks in life. The first task in life is about establishing our identity, our worth, what we’re going to do with ‘our one wild precious life’ (Mary Oliver). In the early years of adulthood we set out to make our mark. Life becomes a challenge of upward mobility.  The first task in life is to form the shape of our lives.  This work is very important and necessary. We can’t skip this task. All adults have to make this their priority as we make our way in life. So it was for me. As I responded to the call to ministry, I became interested in starting new church communities – church planting as it was called. So when I settled in a city that was planned to more than double in size in a couple of decades, I asked what plans  had been made to respond to this. None it appeared! So as a young man in ministry I set about two disastrous and unsuccessful attempts. But I learnt from these failures, and the third time a new Christian community was formed that eventually grew to become the largest Baptist church in the city. Three other church plants followed. This continued in my ministry in Leeds as I grew into my forties with a further five church plants. I had established my reputation and identity, what I was known for. But towards the end of my time in Leeds, a set of circumstances developed that began to trouble me. All this church planting was all very well, but why had it led to all this aggro and tension? Despite being known as a church planting pastor, privately there was a growing nag that all was not right. Outwardly it could be presented as a story of success. But I knew that a community, supposedly a sign of the kingdom of God, was beset with tensions amongst leaders, and it was bearing down on me with every-increasing pressure. There had to be another way. I was on the threshold of falling into the second major task of life.

But our society is taken up with first task of life stuff. ‘Modern society is based on an ideology of strength and image. Consequently, old people are often side-lined. Modern culture is totally obsessed with externality, image, speed, and change; it is driven. In former times, old people were seen as those who had the greatest wisdom. There was always reverence and respect for the elders.’ John O’Donohue again. The whole of modern public life drags us constantly into first task of life issues and there’s little place given to the wisdom of age. Ageism is alive and well and walks the roads of everyday life.

The second major task of life is not about the shape and form of our lives as a container, but with what I am filling the container. We ask ourselves, ‘Who am I becoming in midst of these demands of the first task of life?’ Or, ‘If this is all it’s about then something’s wrong if this is the effect within me and those around me.’  Or simply events that utterly perplex you: ‘What’s all this about?’ A shift takes place and the focus becomes more about authenticity and the character I’m becoming. This is the pull towards righteousness and it opens the possibility of on-going fruitfulness, greenness and sappiness even in our older years. We take stock of ourselves and the impact of life upon us and ask ourselves, ‘Have I been pulled out of shape by first task of life?’ It isn’t directly connected with age. You can meet younger people who are already starting to deal with the second task, while some older people never get to it. But one things for sure you’ll never find the older person of the Psalm 92 kind who hasn’t been dealing with the second task of life stuff.

Now it’s true to say we rarely move into this second task of life willingly or in a planned way. More often than not we’re dragged into it because of some failure or loss, a period of suffering or an illness, a bereavement or sense of having gone as far as we’re going to go in our upwardly thrusting society. There’s a feeling: ‘Is this it then?’ And we’re at the crossroads of either becoming more cynical about what life’s delivered, or we go deeper because we are learning that our difficulties can become the friends of our souls. Richard Rohr has a marvellous phrase for this moment or period in our lives. He talks about those negative events or circumstances as a kind of falling. We think of falling as always downwards. But by grace he calls these negatives a ‘falling upwards’! So what does this falling look like and where does it lead?

This brings us to our second text and receiving maturity. In 2 Corinthians 4:16-18, Paul’s been speaking about the tough and crushing things he’s experienced – about being ‘hard-pressed’,  ‘perplexed’, ‘persecution’, and of being ‘struck down.’ But this doesn’t stop life from rising up within him. And he says in fact that ‘while his outer nature is wasting away, his inner nature is daily being renewed.’  The second task of life is about going on the ‘inner journey.’ Paul’s aware of how, by God’s grace, the outward overwhelming circumstances in his life, have been used to nourish an inner hope and resilience of character.

When I began to prepare this, I first headed this section, ‘Generating maturity.’ But I quickly realised this would have been a mistake. It would have focused us too much on ourselves and what we can do to stimulate maturity. But really, if what I’ve said about falling into the second task of life is true, you can only either receive a maturing process or you avoid it or resist it. You can’t generate it as such. As we grow older we get more and more chances to go on this inner journey, because life’s externals, either don’t deliver or they disappoint. And we need a different map to go on this inner journey. As Carl Jung, the famous psychoanalyst said: ‘One cannot live the afternoon of life according to the programme of life’s morning; for what was great in the morning will be of little importance in the evening, and what in the morning was true, will at evening have become a lie.’

So what are the contours of the map of healthy ageing in our lives? Let me mention a few features. First the map has to do with memory and regret. Life is essentially transient. Even the most beautiful moment which you want to bottle and keep forever, will fade fast. Now this is good if you’re going through a tough time, because you can say, ‘Everything passes.’ But it’s also true of those most special moments of beauty when your soul settles into pure rest and joy. So it means that there is a somewhat ‘ghostly’ quality to our transient, human experiences. But all those wonderful moments are gathered into the storehouse of our memories. This is why memory becomes so important as we age. Pascal said we should always carry something beautiful in our hearts? Why? Because memories of beauty can help us to integrate our selves and sort what is truly of value and what can be let go of. Regret on the other hand is a dangerous and destructive tool. We all have regrets despite Edith Piaff’s song. The problem is that while we may be compassionate to others, we can be merciless and tough on ourselves, putting ourselves on the rack of self-condemnation. Be gentle with yourself. We all make mistakes, but we must know that grace is able to redeem mistakes into a harvest of righteousness.

Second there is prayer and reflection. The inner journey requires space. By prayer I mean taking those memories and whether or not you were conscious of God at the time of the original event that formed your memory, God was there for good and to resist the ill. So prayer is giving yourself permission to let God into your memories and to become aware that God wasn’t excluded and gone AWOL from those times you either cherish or shun. Prayer is more than a shopping list of present needs and anxieties. It is an awakening of consciousness to the presence of God in all things, the God who is eternal and present to your past rekindled now in your memories.

If you grow in compassion and understanding of your own soul, you can become more of a safe presence for others to shelter under. You become that older person to whom the young can turn for their own struggles with the first and second tasks of life. This is the growing of the biblical vision of an ‘elder’ – grandparents of the kingdom. And how we need such people in our age-anxious society – models of hope in a culture obsessed with eternal youth!

Finally such second-task of life people can become sources of wisdom and encouragement. Life is difficult and it takes us to the edges of our resources and beyond on occasions. The steady wise words of a fruitful, green, full-of-sap senior friend, can make all the difference in the battles of life. So let’s receive the maturing that comes from the falling into the second task of life, and becomes those trees of righteousness of which the bible speaks.

For reflection
1.    Share the different feelings we may have about ageing?
2.    Talk about an older person you admire and any you avoid! Why? How does the person you admire express the imagery of a tree in Psalm 92:14?
3.    In what ways do you observe today’s culture as ‘totally obsessed with externality, image, speed, and change; it is driven’?
4.    In what ways do we get trapped by the first task of life – as important and good as it is?
5.    Can you think about a past circumstance/event you would never have chosen or wanted, which looking back, has deepened you?
6.    How do we deal with striving to live the ‘second task of life’ in a society that seemingly rejects it?
7.    Look at 2 Corinthians 4:8-12 & 13-18. Why is the renewal of our inner nature of such importance as we grow older?
8.    How can we guard our memories so they are help rather than a hindrance?
9.    In what ways is regret – whilst sometimes necessary – so dangerous & destructive?
10.    Where have the ‘elders’ gone & what can we do to nurture ‘elders’ for future generations

Click here to listen to the teaching