I used to romanticize the prospect of being an old man. I thought it would be kind of sweet, I guess, to meander in the park, sit and watch the young people, think kind thoughts. What never really occurred to me, though, was the cost growing older exacts.
Of course, there’s the obvious: It hurts. No, I mean, like real physical pain. Not only can I not do all the things I used to do, when I try to do them, I do things to my body that require ice and heat and a steady supply of Motrin. My body breaks easier and heals slower. I can’t get used to the thought that I can’t just do what I want to do, while my body responds with a minimum amount of whinging.
My knees, elbows, and shoulders are no longer so much joints as bus stops where old men congregate to complain about the weather and sit and laugh at the foolishness of young men. I’m not yet fifty (stop your eye-rolling), so I know this is only going to get worse … and I’m actually in pretty good shape.
But perhaps even worse than the physical pain associated with the cracking and popping, is the psychological pain of knowing your body is in the process of betraying you. And I don’t mean just a casual betrayal like a sprained ankle or an unsightly blemish; I’m talking about my body joining the other side and fighting against me. I’ve walked around with this body for almost a half century. It used to treat me pretty well, all things considered. It took me where I wanted to go about as fast as I could want to get there. And when we arrived, my body and me, I felt pretty good about the vehicle I drove up in. It worked about as hard as I needed for it to work. It refueled on just about anything at hand: Twinkies, pizza, and M&Ms. I trusted it, and it did well by me. But lately, I’ve noticed a lack of trust.
Used to be, I’d walk into the weight room and throw on just about whatever weight I wanted. Never gave it much thought. Now, I put that weight on, and I think, “If one of my joints gave out on me, and I dropped this barbell, it would surely kill me dead … bug-on-windshield dead.”
And it would be one thing if it just quit working the way it used to, but I’m worried that my body is turning Benedict Arnold on me. I think about the fact that my body sometimes is actively trying to kill me. My dad died of prostate cancer, two of my grandparents died of colon cancer. Their bodies manufactured their own ingenious smart bombs—then deployed those smart bombs against their lifelong hosts. That, it seems to me, is a a colossal lack of gratitude.
It’s a tough thought that we human beings often manufacture our own organic assassins, which, of course, doesn’t even take into account the numberless external hit men looking to take a crack at punching our tickets.
Congregations face the same kinds of threats from aging. Their eyesight dims, and their hearing goes. They totter. They sometimes become enthralled with the ecclesiastical equivalent of Lawrence Welk, sport liturgical polyester wash ‘n wear, and drool on their shirt fronts. It happens.
Unlike human beings, however, for whom a gym membership and a frequent flyer card at the plastic surgeon is merely an attempt at forestalling the inevitable, congregations, in some, instances can actually rejuvenate.
The problem, though, is that aging congregations (not unlike their human counterparts) tend to cling to a few misplaced snake oil cures they bought off late night infomercials on cable. And it’s not like the remedies are necessarily toxic on their own, unless they are invested with the expectation of having magic powers.
If you are in an aging congregation, here are a few ads for “cure-alls” that should arouse your suspicion (especially if you think that by latching onto them you will solve all your problems):
- “Put a spring in your step! Hire a young minister with a family!” [If you think a young minister is your ticket back to spiritual youth, you’re getting ready to make that young clergy person old … quickly.]
- “Don’t let worship give you the ‘blahs.’ Get yourself a ‘Praise Team!’” [If you think finding the right combination of choruses and sunny dispositions is the key to what ails you, you’re soon going to find out that catchy tunes and smiling dispositions are insufficient tonic to restore lost youth.]
- “You don’t have to be irrelevant forever! You too can too can have goateed wearing Mandolin players doing music inspired by Mumford and Sons in your worship, meeting afterward for shade grown coffee and microbrews!” [If you think this is the route to a new you, then get thee down to a tattoo studio for some therapeutic ink application.]
- “Tired of seeing the same old faces every Sunday? Then we’ve got just the right evangelism program for you!” [If you think there’s a revolutionary new door knocking program that nobody’s ever thought of before, you’re about to get an up close lesson on how the law of diminishing returns works.]
- Stuck in the Past? Then spend a little money and get a swell Internet page!” [If you think youth lies just over the Internet divide, to get an idea of the potential impact, first stop and imagine your mom wearing a thong to the community pool. (She might be able to carry it off, but more likely than not, absent a tremendous amount of work it will not end well.)]
Look, I’m not saying any of these things are evil (well, I have opinions on a couple of them). What I am saying, however, is that if you get snookered into thinking that any of these cure-alls will solve your aging problems, you’re only going to be disappointed.
“So, how do we handle growing older as a congregation?”
My advice: Don’t try to handle it at all. Complain about it a little bit like normal grown ups do, then move onto something more interesting.
If avoiding growing old becomes the focus of your life (actual or congregational), you’re going to wind up looking like Joan Rivers after one too many trips to the plastic surgeon’s office—a bit too pinched, like something will crack and fall off if you laugh at a dirty joke.
How about this? Why not try worrying about how most faithfully to live like Jesus—the guy who lived so much it killed him anyway?
Bonus: We're Easter People! So take heart. Maybe God will do something interesting with you.