2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1 & Mark 3:20-35

Growing Old Gracefully?

Tuesday 28th May I celebrated my 74th birthday.  Many of the congratulatory calls I received from family and friends referred to my aging body.  My older brother, Alan, told me that he could hear my joints creaking through the phone.  I told him that it didn’t help that he had phoned me as I got out of the shower and was standing in the nude drying myself. He made the most of the opportunity and kept talking for as long as he could. Ray, my younger brother sent me a card telling me how to open a bottle of wine. It said, “Open the bottle to allow it to breathe. If it doesn’t look like it’s breathing give it mouth to mouth.”

That made me think and I looked up the Sermon that I had preached after my 65th birthday. (That is one of the benefits of computers-everything is stored neatly in windows.)

What struck me most were some of the Birthday cards I received on my 65th. They all seemed to have one theme and that was that I had reached the age that tipped me over the hill. According to the birthday cards I was on the slippery slope to old age and possibly dementia.

Allow me to share one or two of the choice birthday cards from my 65th birthday.

“OK, you’re a year older and older than you’ve ever been before. But you’re a year younger than you’ll be this time next year, and in fact younger than you’ll ever be again. Did you follow that?  Good at least your mind is still working.”

One with a baby on the front! “Remember when your hair was thin, teeth were few and cheeks were chubby…no change there then.”

“They say therapy can help you deal with getting older and I say denial is a whole lot cheaper.”

“At our age, you realise something very important. Then poof it’s gone and you can’t remember what the heck you were just thinking about.”

“You’re not an old Goat. You’re just a big kid with lots of experience.” Welcome to the elite Gold Card fraternity.

Two men playing golf. One says, “My old eyes aren’t what they used to be – did you see where my ball went.” The other replies, ”Yep…but I can’t remember.”

I think I get the message. 65 marks a significant milestone and I am classified as a Senior in society. What then about 74?

In my last period of Study Leave, I researched planning for retirement. One of the significant things that I found is that a positive attitude towards aging has a lot to do with a healthy lifestyle and outlook. In retirement, it seems to me, that many people just change full-time work for voluntary work or part-time work. Since re-wirement, I have not given up ministry or serving the Church of our Lord. The difference is that I have chosen when and where I will serve.

I was reading a précis of the book, “The Art of Aging; A Doctor’s Prescription for Well-Being” written by Sherwin Nuland, a Clinical Professor of Surgery at the Yale School of Medicine. Nuland observes that there’s a very thin line between denial and despair, between pretending nothing has changed and doing nothing at all. A big difference between living long and living well.

Beyond the standard advice about diet, exercise, genetics, intellectual stimulation, and social connections, Nuland explores the intangibles of our attitudes, dispositions, and religious faith. It’s not just about eating granola, he says. Cultivating equanimity over entitlement, contentment over complaining, or determination over discouragement, are only three examples of the attitudes we can choose about aging.

Aging brings both gains and losses. Cultivating the wisdom to separate fact and fantasy is huge, as is learning to live with uncertainty and adversity. One of the biggest lessons of aging, says Nuland, is that “choice exists for each of us.” Aging is not a disease; it’s a natural condition of every life. And if it’s handled wisely, there really is more sugar at the bottom of the cup.

Acknowledging the mortality of our bodies is a tremendous gift. It reorders our desire. It narrows our focus and gives a perspective that is rooted in reality.

In 2 Corinthians 4 and 5, Paul mentions the “body” seven times. He uses unflattering metaphors to describe the body — it’s like a flimsy tent, a clay jar, a “nakedness” when we are exposed as “unclothed.” Life “in the body,” says Paul, is a time of “troubles” when we are “away from the Lord.”   I don’t think Paul views our bodies as sinful but he does view them as a means of our succumbing to the desires of the flesh.     

Paul is brutally realistic about life “in the body.” He yanks us out of fantasy and into reality, from denial into candour. He would move us from despair to wisdom in order to live well today. But make no mistake, for Paul; life “in the body” is hard. Growing old isn’t for sissies. 

He says, while “in the body,” we are “hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus.” Does that ring true for you?

What is the death of Jesus that Paul refers to? It is of course the hope of resurrection with Christ and life eternal with God. Paul put it this way, “Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed every day. We do not lose heart. ..Fix your eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.”

 Prof Richard Dawkins, the noted English biologist, would do well to listen to those words of Paul. For Dawkins, who is an atheist, all that exists is scientifically provable.

My suspicion is that we all struggle with change, which is what growing old is all about. The physical evidence confronts us each and every day. My being follically challenged and having to wear glasses to read are constant reminders, for me, of the aging process as is going to the dentist because a tooth has broken or requires being removed. Aging brings with it both opportunities and challenges. We appreciate the opportunities but can be put off by the challenges.

But it is not only our own personal aging that concerns us. We also can become concerned about the aging of the church and what the future may hold. It is interesting that one of the biblical terms used for the Church is “the body of Christ.” Like all bodies, the Church goes through periods of growth and decline.  We could say that with age both we and the church mature; which means “we reach the fully developed stage in a process.”  

Paul is absolutely certain that death is not the end of life but rather the means by which we enter into life eternal with Christ and share his victory over death. Life in the body, as Paul well knew is not all about exercise and a better diet; it is not always about aging gracefully but it is about trusting God for whatever the future may hold – in both life and death.  This is as true for each and every one of us as it is for this Body of Christ which we are all part of – His Church   To God be the glory. Amen