Theoretically, a person should be wielding an increasing amount of spiritual authority up until their final breath. Spiritual authority is not something that can be numbered or quantified. I’m afraid that my opening statement may sound like I believe that. I do not. Rather, I see a direct correlation between intimacy with Christ and spiritual authority. The deeper a person knows the voice of the Lord, the more readily they hear His voice, and the more that they are able be a simple channel of His Word and His heart to those around them. An elderly man or woman who has spent their lives seeking out the Word of God can so naturally funnel God’s wisdom and love to those around them. God is so creative. He uses a lifetime of experiences, good and bad, successes and failures to constantly draw His children closer into His presence.
People are living longer than they ever have before in the United States. Why then is there such a systemic and tragic lack of wisdom manifest in our culture? Can we look back on the generation that has grown old and the generation that is quickly growing old and say that so few have walked that long path of listening? I’m not so sure. Everywhere I have lived I find elderly men and women who deeply love God and have long listened to His voice. My guess is that it is not for lack of potential wisdom, but a lack of listening and knowing wisdom’s voice that is stagnating us now.
Jon Foreman wrote a song titled “Learning How to Die” that I think of from time to time. The chorus to the song is profound. In the song the singer is conversing with a beloved, dying friend. The singer mourns the coming death, wishing for more time. But the dying friend says,
“Friend all along I thought I was learning how to take
How to bend not how to break, how to live not how to cry
Really I’ve been learning how to die
Been learning how to die”
I’m not stating an original, earth shattering idea when I say that much of life revolves around learning how to die. This has been true from the present moment straight back to times unremembered and unrecorded. The greatest life is the One who so readily gave it up, who so willingly embraced death. This may be the character trait that separates the first king of Israel with the eternal King of Israel as much as any other. The first avoided death like the plague. The final King walked steadily and willingly towards it.
Scripture contains many descriptions of the wonderful process of growing old.
Proverbs 16:31 “Gray hair is a crown of glory; it is gained in a righteous life.”
2 Corinthians 4:16 “So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day.”
Job 12:12 “Wisdom is with the aged, and understanding in length of days.”
And so many more Proverbs, Psalms, prophecies and stories reveal the glories, joys and wisdom that can only come from growing older and walking steadily towards death.
My dad used to use a joke from a tv show called “Get Smart.” I attempted unsuccessfully to find the referenced clip on YouTube. I think that Inspector Gadget is roughly based on this show? Anyways, in one episode the title character, Max, was given multiple choices by a villain on how he (Max) wanted to die. The villain, after showing Max his options of death, asked, “How do you choose to die.” Max responds, “How about old age?”
When I was a little kid I wanted to die a gloriously, tragic death on a far off battlefield. The more I read and listen to wisdom, the more I realize that dying of old age is a truly glorious death.
At the time of this writing, culturally speaking, I am about to peak. I’m approaching thirty. This is the approximate age in Western culture where ability, youth, potential, a little experience, and vitality gloriously meet for a brief, shining moment. This is the age that almost all great American artists come “into their own” (at least artists who require an audience to perform). Basically all of our favorite actors and musicians peak at about thirty.
With a chuckle of humorous sadness we tolerate U2, The Rolling Stones, Johnny Depp, Liam Neeson and the like. We do this partly because “they’ve earned it” but mostly because we remember what they used to be like…you know…when they were about 30. Not all of these artists are “elderly”, but they are at the very least steadily approaching it.
Each of these persons should be creating the best art of their lives right now. This is not a criticism of these artists. It is a criticism of us. We don’t listen to the elderly, the very people we should listen to the most. The Rolling Stones members are each in their seventies but have ZERO cultural permission to act like it. In America, if you act like you are old then you may as well be dead.
What a lie from hell.
The generation that my generation is just beginning to give birth to and raise will likely be as spiritually orphaned a generation as any that has ever walked the face of this giant orphanage earth. This is because when men and women are JUST beginning to find that their voices can carry real authority, they are told to stop talking. And if they dare to keep talking, they are only heard and understood through the paradigmatic funnel of what they said when they were younger.
I fear for myself, and many of my close friends, who have found themselves in leadership positions at young ages. God purposefully chooses the word “elder” for significant spiritual reasons. I’ve regularly been leading congregational worship for around 10 years. In ancient Israel I wouldn’t even be allowed to be a priest yet due to my lack of…age. I know that God has grace for me, and my young friends, but we so desperately need wisdom that can only come from experience and from walking with God for a long time.
I’ve watched several of my friends who are a few years older than I really struggle with the reality of turning thirty. From a distance I’ve watched with a small amount of amusement at their inner struggle. You can ask me in a couple years how it was for me. I understand the fear of crossing that line, it is such a significant, albeit invisible, cultural line. I never want to peek. I understand that culturally I will. But according to the Word of God I never have to peek spiritually or experientially with either God or my fellow man.
My wife and I are serving at a church, in a neighborhood, and among people that are dying in many ways. The world sees them and sadly shakes its head…such a pity things aren’t like they used to be.
I think that the Holy Spirit sees it just slightly differently. 1 Corinthians 1:18-31:
18 For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 19 For it is written,
“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,
and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.”
20 Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21 For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. 22 For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, 23 but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, 24 but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.
26 For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. 27 But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; 28 God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, 29 so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. 30 And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, 31 so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”
Grandmas and Grandpas, moms and dads, the old man greeting you into the hardware store, they love to tell the same stories over and over again. They’re probably worth repeating…
It’s no secret that the previous generations have not done the best job of raising my parent’s generation or my own generation. But unless we choose to forgive them and then to deeply listen to them we will be cursed to make increasingly destructive mistakes. The only way to not do the same things our fathers have done is to listen to them…crazy, counter-intuitive and true. I want to make clear that I also see many wonderful things that these generations have done. If we want to emulate the good it will also require good listening.
If we don’t listen to our grandparents, great grandparents, parents and older siblings, we not only won’t be able to reproduce their successes, but we’ll be doomed to fail in increasingly destructive ways. Why don’t we shut up more and LISTEN? Do you know how to comfortably talk to some one thirty, forty, or fifty years older than you? If you don’t, it’s likely because you don’t know how to listen to them.
Even Jesus, the perfect One, grew in both wisdom and stature. And right when He should have been culturally peeking he chose death. For Him this meant physical death. For many it means embracing age and growing old with joy in the journey. But how can our grandparents die with glory and dignity when they are so isolated, so lonely, so forgotten, shoved aside and ignored?