The newest and chronologically oldest member of a congregational board of trustees approached me once for counsel. He had agreed to serve on the board, he said, because of his extensive experience with facilities; he had thought he would be able set church operations in order. To his surprise, he found the staff was handling the building very well already.
Moreover, when he looked at the mostly much younger board members, he was amazed by their worldly skills as well as their energy. Now he was struggling with whether he should even continue to serve. “What can I bring to leadership,” he asked?
I thought about his humility in acknowledging his doubts. I noticed his generosity in affirming those around him, from musicians to staff to lay leaders. I recalled the losses he had survived personally and the new life he had created for himself.
“Carl, “ – I will call him ‘Carl’ – I said, “you can bring perspective. Yes, the younger folks are very talented, but you can show them when to slow down or charge ahead, when to take a breath and when to get their emotions under control. You can encourage and inspire them.” I did not put it in these terms, but, of course, what I meant was that he could be the true elder.
Language use reveals a great deal. While “elderly” at best indicates advanced age, its connotations are mostly negative: frail, inactive, well beyond peak; an elderly person is one who inhabits the twilight hours. Especially in our youth-obsessed culture, people engage in everything from plastic surgery to verbal gymnastics to avoid being labeled elderly. And no wonder. Those of us past the mythical midpoint of life know we are often invisible, or if visible, dismissed and excluded by the systems and people around us. Aging in body is not fun, but when we deny the value of aging to individuals and communities, we diminish everyone.
In contrast, in many cultures, an elder is an honored person: one who has reached a pinnacle of understanding, one who can teach and guide. According to Thomas Moore, who has written extensively on tending the soul, real aging is not just getting older, but “a rare gift” that results from understanding and attitude. Moore lays out the elements of being an elder, at the heart of which is becoming the ageless soul that each of us has at the center of our being. Think of it as like the inner core of the tree. No matter how many layers time builds over that center, no matter how many rings of experience accumulate, with spiritual honesty, we embrace that ageless soul as our essential selves.
That does not mean denying age. In fact, Thomas Moore says the first and most fundamental step in becoming an elder is to “be comfortable with your age” – to accept it, “speak openly and calmly” about where you are in your lifespan. I do not need to look at celebrity culture to recognize the challenge of that. Even as a minister, I sense the uneasiness around aging in my vocation. It is sometimes suggested that those of us who are older should get out and leave the positions to younger ministers who understand the world better. But so many of my colleagues embrace the wisdom brought by having weathered church crises, tended tragic pastoral situations, or dealt with complicated staff situations. These elders acknowledge experience and witness from it, and every day I see younger ministers learn gratefully from them. The joy of it, as Moore points out, is that if you have confidence in the education life has granted you, you can act as teacher, mentor, companion.
It is, I suppose, another way of talking about the virtue of aging gracefully. But usually, in our culture, what we mean by that is superficial. Don’t try to look younger than you are. Don’t dress like a twenty-five year old. If you’re a woman, don’t wear your hair too long and don’t color it. If you’re a man, don’t date people who are young. Any of those might or might not be good advice, but they miss the point. Truly graceful aging means accepting the gift that experience grants you in the world of human relatedness. How desperately we need not more people who look a certain way, but people who learn from mistakes and grow in wisdom. Sometimes that means facing the truth. One person long ago and far away who had reached the age of “retirement” could not bear any word for someone of long experience. She objected to “senior” and “elder” and “older person” and “golden ager,” all terms she could wax vehement about. Finally, I asked, “What term do you like?” Her answer: “I haven’t found one.” This person was intelligent, accomplished in her professional life, and elegant in appearance, but she was not comfortable with her years and therefore an elder.
If we grow comfortable with our years, it allows us to achieve another important characteristic of the true elder: loving young people and sharing our experience with them. You can drag up every cliché in our language to say why it’s important to do so. Young people are our children; they are the future. Yes, yes, and more yes. But there is a much more selfish reason for older people to do so: it makes life more meaningful and whole for us. For a while, we forget what we cannot do because we are older and understand what we have to share. As Moore says, it’s one of the routes to healing some of the sadness of old age: You can transform the meaning of elder from someone who happens to have more years stacked up than others,” he writes, “ to someone who has come to a point where he or she can forget about dry conventions and be creative and assertive with life for the benefit of those in search of guidance.”
As I have been thinking about this sermon I have carried with me the memory of two elders I was incredibly lucky to know in my last settled ministry. John and Polly Beresford are now gone, so I can unabashedly pay homage to them. They were the grandparents everyone wanted. In fact, in the days long before it was fashionable for media to so dub celebrity couples, congregants unconsciously melded their names together into the iconic “john’n’polly.” They were compassionate, funny, and generous, but most of all they befriended people of all ages with the apparent aim of sharing experiences that made life worth loving. As the new minister, I along with my family, was invited to their house for Thanksgiving dinner and taken on a Sunday afternoon to see the flocks of snow geese that spend two or three days during on a particular lake in South Central Pennsylvania during their migration. It was a stunning sight.
If they had only done such things for their minister, it would be one thing. But a holiday dinner at their house would find a single mother with children from the congregation sitting beside the Beresfords’ grown daughter or a gay man feeling isolated in what could be a disapproving part of the country carving their turkey. Jon’n’Polly treated everyone the same: with acceptance and humility. They were the first to admit their mistakes in life, the last to tout their own talents, and utterly disinclined to lecture or patronize anyone of any age. They were grace embodied. It always humbled and frankly stunned me when one or the other would come to me for spiritual counsel because I knew at sat the feet of their humanity.
Polly may have been the most graceful elder I have ever known, but John and I collaborated. He helped me with fundraising and made shelves for me. No memory stands out more, though, than the time I was going to use exactly the same example for the Time for All Ages that I used today: the rings of the tree like the earlier selves we carry inside of us. John went to his woodshop and made enough small discs from a tree branch for every child in our large church school to have one. He sanded and polished and varnished them, with each showing clearly the concentric circles. He wanted the children to appreciate the life of a tree and also to share with them the beauty and joy of wood. As I distributed them to the children at the front of the church, I slipped one into my pocket. I would give anything if I could find it tucked away in a box now.
I don’t know exactly how old either of these elders was. I know that each was supremely comfortable with the ageless souls inside of them.
If we are blessed to live long and deep, let us become elders. Let us do it for our friends, our children, our communities, and, yes, my friends, let us do it for ourselves.
Moore, Thomas. Ageless Soul: The Lifelong Journey Toward Joy and Meaning. New York: St. Martin’s Press. 2017.